A Chinese New Year Story

Chinese New Year starts with the New Moon on the first day of the new year and ends on the full moon 15 days later.  The 15th day of the new year is called the Lantern Festival which is celebrated at night with lantern displays and children carrying lanterns in a parade. 

The Chinese calendar is based on a combination of lunar and solar movements.  The lunar cycle is about 29.5 days.  In order to “catch up” with the solar calendar the Chinese insert an extra month once every few years (seven years out  of a 19 year cycle).  This is the same as adding an extra day on leap year.  This is why, according to the solar calendar, the Chinese New Year falls on a different date each year. 

Chinese New Year 15-Day Celebration
Thefirst day of the Lunar New Year is “the welcoming of the gods of the heavens and earth”. Many people abstain from meat on the first day of the new year because it is believed that this will ensure long and happy lives for them.

On the second day, the Chinese pray to their ancestors as well as to all the gods.  They are extra kind to dogs and feed them well as it is believed that the second day is the birthday of all dogs.

The third and fourth days are for the sons-in-laws to pay respect to their parents-in-law.

The fifth day is called Po Woo.  On that day people stay home to welcome the God of Wealth. No one visits families and friends on the 5th day because it will bring both parties bad luck.

On the sixth to the 10th day, the Chinese visit their relatives and friends freely. They also visit the temples to pray for good fortune and health.

The seventh day of the New Year is the day for farmers to display their produce.  These farmers make a drink from 7 types of vegetables to celebrate the occasion.  The 7th day is also considered the birthday of human beings.  Noodles are eaten to promote longevity, and raw fish for success.

On the eighth day the Fijian people have another family reunion dinner, and at midnight they pray to Tien Gong, the God of Heaven.

The ninth day is to make offerings to the Jade Emperor.

The tenth through the twelfth are days that friends and relatives should be invited for dinner.  After so much rich food, the thirteenth day should have a change in diet with a simple bland congee and mustard greens to cleanse the system.

The fourteenth day should be for preparations to celebrate the Lantern Festival which is to be held on the fifteenth night.

The Lantern Festival
The Lantern Festival is celebrated on the 15th day of the new year.  The Lantern Festival seems to have originated in ancient times as a ceremony to usher in the increasing light and warmth of the sun after the winter’s cold.

Some of the lanterns are cubical, round, square, flat, thin and oblong.  Most are constructed of red paper which is the symbol of joy and festivity.

Festival Customs
Many of the customs associated with the Lantern Festival have to do with eating.  One such custom was known as “eating taro under the lanterns”.   Taros were boiled until they were soft.  Around midnight, all family members would eat the taros.  Some people believed that eating the taros would improve their eyesights.

Besides eating, there were many types of colorful and exciting performances for people to enjoy.
Most widespread of all were the dragon dance and the lion dance, though the stilt dancers with their carnival spirit were the most popular.

Stilt Walkers
Stilts are basically wooded poles with footrests at a certain height above the bottom.  They enable a person standing on the footrests to walk above the ground.  In the West, stilts are often considered as children’s playthings.  They are also associated with circus and parade performers, commonly referred to as stilt-walkers.  However, in China, the use of stilts has been rather sophisticated, not only in parades, but also as entertainment with acrobatics and drama.  In parades, the stilt walkers are dressed in various costumes, usually with a theme which relates to some popular story or folk tale.  The stilt walkers are also associated with various religious festivals and temple celebrations, as they act out the various heroic epics and deeds of various deities.

Lion Dance
The Chinese Lion Dance, as we know it today, has a continuous history of some one thousand years.  The first record of the performance of an early and more primitive form of the Lion Dance dates back to the early Ch’in and Han Dynasties (3rd century B.C.) 

The lion dance is very important to the Asian people.  It gives meaning to life.  In the consecration of temples, new buildings and other construction, events and businesses, planting and harvesting, celebration of official acknowledgment and public recognition festivals, religious rites - for all these and more, the Lion Dance plays an essential role.  www.cpafoundation.org

Chinese New Year is a Time of Family Reunions
New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day are celebrated as a family affair, a time of reunion and thanksgiving.  The celebration was traditionally highlighted with a religious ceremony given in honor of Heaven and Earth, the gods of the household, and the family ancestors.

The sacrifice to the ancestors, the most vital of all the rituals, united the living members with those who had passed away.  Departed relatives were remembered with great respect in the past as they still are today because they were responsible for laying the foundations for the fortune and glory of the family.

The presence of the ancestors is acknowledged on the eve of the New Year with a dinner setting arranged for them at the family banquet table. The spirits of the ancestors, together with the living, celebrate the onset of the New Year as one great community.  The communal feast called “surrounding the stove” (weilu) symbolizes the unity of the family and honors the past and present generations of the lineage

Traditional New Year Foods
Probably more food is consumed during the period of celebrating New Year than any other time in the year.  In addition to preparing vast amounts of traditional food for family and friends, food is also cooked for those close to us who have died.

On New Year’s Day the Chinese family will eat a vegetarian dish called jai. Although the various ingredients in jai are root vegetables or fibrous vegetables, many people attribute various symbolic aspects to them:

  • Lotus seed - signify having many male offspring
  • Gingko nuts - represents silver ingots
  • Black moss seaweed - is a homonym for exceeding in wealth
  • Dried bean-curd is another homonym for fulfillment of wealth and happiness
  • Bamboo shoots - is a term which sounds like “wishing that everything would be well”
  • Bean curd or Tofu is not included as it is white and unlucky for New Year as the color signifies death and misfortune.

Other foods are a whole fish to represent togetherness and abundance and a chicken for prosperity. The chicken must be presented with a head, tail and feet, to symbolize completeness.  Noodles should be uncut, noodles represent long life.  In south China the favorite and most typical dishes were nian gao, sweet steamed glutinous rice pudding and zong zi (glutinous rice wrapped up in reed leaves), another popular delicacy.  In the north, steamed wheat bread (man tou) and small meat dumplings were the preferred food.  The tremendous amount of food prepared at this time was meant to symbolize abundance and wealth for the household

Chinese New Year’s Decorations
Prior to Chinese New Year Day, we decorate our living rooms with vases of pretty blossoms, platters of oranges and tangerines, and a candy tray with with eight varieties of dried sweet fruit.  On walls and doors are poetic couplets, happy wishes written on red paper.  These messages sound better than the typical fortune cookie messages.  For instance, “May you enjoy continuous good health” and “May the Star of Happiness, the Star of Wealth, and the Star of Longevity shine on you” are especially positive couplets.

Plants and Flowers
Lunar New Year is one of the most important of all Chinese traditional holidays.  It is a time for celebrating family, luck, fortune, and prosperity.  In celebrating this 15-day long celebration there are many symbolic traditions and good luck charms involved.  Come join us here at Old Shanghai in the viewing of the Chinese New Year Fruits and Flowers Display.

Partnering with the Asian Art Museum, we are here to share and educate everyone about our Lunar New Years celebratory traditions.  In the meantime, stroll through our store and browse our thousands of Asian inspired home décor, apparel, and accessories and be inspired to infuse your home with a touch of traditional China.  Old Shanghai is located at 645 Grant Avenue, San Francisco, CA (nearest cross street is California St). Feel free to visit us online at www.oldshanghaionline.com.

Every traditional Chinese household should also have live blooming plants to symbolize rebirth and new growth.  Flowers are believed to be symbolic of wealth and high positions in one’s career.  Lucky is the home with a plant that blooms on New Year’s Day itself for that foretells a year of prosperity.  In more elaborate settings, plum blossoms just starting to bloom are arranged with bamboo and pine sprigs, the grouping symbolizing friends – the plum blossom also signifies reliability and perseverance; the bamboo is known for its compatibility, its utility and its  flexible stems for furniture and other articles; the evergreen pine evokes longevity and steadiness.  Other highly prized flowers are the pussy willow, azalea, peony, and water lily or narcissus.

The Chinese firmly believe that without flowers, there would be no formation of any fruits.  Therefore, it is of the utmost importance to have flowers and floral decorations.  They are the emblems of reawakening of nature, they are also intimately connected with superstition and with the wish for happiness during the ensuing year. 

Oranges and Tangerine
Etiquette dictates that you must bring a bag of oranges and tangerines and enclose a lai see when visiting  family or friends anytime during the two week long Chinese New Year celebration.  Tangerines with leaves intact assure that one’s relationship with the other remains secure. For newlyweds, this  represents the branching of the couple into a family with many children. Oranges and tangerines are symbols for abundant happiness.

Candy Tray
The candy tray arranged in either a circle or octagon is called “The Tray of Togetherness” and has a dazzling array of candy to start the New Year sweetly.  Each item represents some kind of good fortune.  After taking several pieces of candy from the tray, adults places a red envelope (lai see) on the center compartment of the tray

  • Candied melon - growth and good health
  • Red melon seed - dyed red to symbolize joy, happiness, truth and sincerity
  • Lychee nut - strong family relationships
  • Kumquat - prosperity (gold)
  • Coconut - togetherness
  • Peanuts - long life
  • Longnan - many good sons
  • Lotus seed - many children

The holiday is shared by millions of people with much zest in Chinatowns throughout the world. The atmosphere in our local Chinatown is colorful and carnival like.  In fact, a carnival does take place right at Portsmouth Square (located in San Francisco Chinatown). Street vendors bring out to the sidewalk products associated with the occasion:  festive dried goods and candy, flowers and plants, and packets of red envelopes in all sizes and always decorated with calligraphy or characters in gold.

Taboo and Supersitions

House Cleaning
The entire house should be cleaned before New Year.  On New Year’s Eve, all brooms, brushes, dusters, dust pans and other cleaning equipment are put away.  Sweeping or dusting should not be done on New Year for fear that good fortune be swept away.  After New Year’s day, the floors may be swept. Beginning at the door the dust and rubbish are swept to the middle of the parlor, then placed in the corners and not taken or thrown out until the fifth day.  At no time should the rubbish in the corners be trampled upon.  In sweeping, there is a superstition that if you sweep the dirt out over the threshold, you will sweep one of the family away.  Also to sweep the dust and dirt out of your house by the front entrance is to sweep away the good fortune of the family; it must always be swept inwards and then carried out, then no harm will follow.  All dirt and rubbish when taken out must never be through the front entrance but by the back door. 

Bringing in the New Year and Expelling the Old
Shooting off firecrackers on New Year’s Eve is the Chinese way of sending out the old year and welcoming in the new year. On the stroke of twelve on New Year’s Eve, every door in the house, and even windows, have to be open to allow the old year to go out.

New Year Activites Set Precedent
All debts had to paid by this time. Nothing should be lent on this day, as anyone who does so will be lending all the year.  In olden times when tinder and flint were used, no one would lend them on this day or give a light to others.

Everyone should refrain from using foul language and bad or unlucky words.  Negative terms and the word “four” (Ssu) as it sounds like the like the word for death are not uttered.  Death and dying are never mentioned and ghost stories are totally taboo.  References to the past year is also avoided as everything should be turned towards the new Year and a new beginning.

If you cry on New Year’s day, you will cry all through the year. Therefore, children are tolerated and are not spanked, even though they are mischievous. 

Personal Appearance and Cleanliness
One New Year’s Day, we are not suppose to wash our hair because it would mean we would have washed away good luck for the new year.  Red clothing is preferred during this festive occasion.  Red is considered a bright, happy color, sure to bring the wearer a sunny and bright future.  It is believed that appearance and attitude during New Year’s sets the tone for the year to come.   Children and unmarried friends, as well as close relatives are given  lai see, little red envelopes with crisp one dollar bills inserted, for good fortune.

Miscellaneous New Year Superstitions
For those most superstitious, before leaving the house to call on others, the Almanac should be consulted to find the best time to leave the home and the direction which is most auspicious to head out.

The first person one meets and the first words heard are significant as to what the fortunes would be for the entire year.  It is a lucky sign to see or hear songbirds or red-colored birds or swallows.

It is considered unlucky to greet anyone in their bedroom so that everyone, even the sick, would get dressed and sit in the living room.

Do not use knives or scissors on New Year Day as this may cut off fortune.

It is doubtful that Chinese today actually believe in these do’s and don’ts however, these traditions and customs are still practiced.  These traditions and customs are kept because most families realize that is these very traditions, whether believed or not, that provide continuity with the past and provide the family with an identity.   

Chinese New Year: Fact and Folklore by: William C. Hu
 Ars Ceramica, Ltd. Ann Arbor, Mi. 1976    ISBN 0-89344-037-x

San Francisco Chinatown A Walking Tour by: Shirley Fong-Torres
 China Books & Periodicals Inc. San Francisco, Ca. 1991  ISBN 0-8351-2436-3

Mooncakes and Hungry Ghosts Festivals of China by: Carol Stepanchuk and Charles Wong
 China Books & Periodicals Inc. San Francisco, Ca. 1991 ISBN 0-8351-2481-9

Outlines of Chinese Symbolism and Art Motives by: C.A.S. Williams
 Dover Publications, Inc. New York 1976   ISBN 0-486-23372-3

Traditional Chinese Festivals by: Marie-Luise Latsch
 Graham Brash (Pte) Ltd. Singapore 1988  ISNB 9971-947-80-3

Additional Information provided by: Chinese Performing Arts Foundation
Chinese New Year Story by Serena Chen

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