Backgrounder: Chinese Lunar New Year

By Yao Yuan and Zhou Yan

The Chinese begin celebrating the lunar New Year, or the Spring Festival on Feb. 10 this year.  Most Chinese people follow traditional cultural elements and customs in what is the most festive season in the country every year.

YEAR OF THE SNAKE

The Spring Festival this year marks the beginning of the Year of the Snake, according to the Chinese zodiac that assigns one of the 12 animals, either real or fabricated, to each year. The snake ranks sixth in the cycle, preceded by the dragon and followed by the horse.

Snakes were worshipped by the oldest Chinese as a totem. Unearthed millennia-old stone carvings depict Fuxi and Nuwa, mythological ancestors of the Chinese, as half-human, half-snake.

Some historians also believe the dragon, the national emblem of China, was based on images of snakes, which is why people in many places still call snakes “lesser dragons.”

Former Chinese leader Mao Zedong and Xi Jinping, the newly elected helmsman of the Communist Party of China, are among those born under the sign of snake.

In many Chinese regions, those who encounter the year of their zodiac sign are recommended to wear something red to ward off bad luck, with the most common being red string wristlets and red underpants.

FIREWORKS, LANTERNS, COUPLETS

Most people stay up late on the eve of Chinese New Year, watching the TV gala, eating snacks with their families. Those who choose to go to bed early are often woken up at midnight by fireworks, which continue for days after.

The fireworks and the red decorations in front of many homes and businesses were originally intended to scare away the “Nian” (year in Chinese), a mythical beast supposed to have preyed on people and livestock at the turn of the year. The monster, however, was afraid of bangs and the red color.

Although few now believe existence of the monster, Chinese families carry on the tradition of hanging red lanterns, setting off fireworks and fixing red scrolls with rhyming phrases on their doors, hoping all the items can ward off evil spirits and bring in good luck.

NEW YEAR EATS

Dishes served during the Spring Festival often carry symbolic meaning.

In northern China, dumplings are an indispensable dish for New Year’s dinner. Many believe eating dumplings will bring fortune, because the food resembles “yuan bao,” a boat-shaped gold ingot that was used as currency in centuries past.

Although most dumplings are filled with vegetables, meat or fish, some families put special items, most often coins, in one of their dumplings when they are preparing their meal. The person who finds the “special dumpling” is believed to have good luck for the whole year.

In southern China, where most people prefer rice to wheat, families eat glutinous rice cakes instead of dumplings for New Year’s dinner. These cakes are also symbols of a prosperous new year.

Fish and leeks are also common, as their names sound like “abundance” and “longevity,” respectively.

Nowadays, the large dinners prepared during the festival feature less symbolism and are seen more as an occasion for family reunions, especially for those who live and work away from home and return once a year for the festival.

LUCKY MONEY

Children are especially fond of the Spring Festival because they know it will bring them gifts in the form of red envelopes stuffed with “lucky” money, presented by parents, grandparents and other relatives.

The custom is intended to convey greetings and protect children from bad luck during the new year. The amount given can range from 50 yuan (8 U.S. dollars) to several thousand yuan, but the money must be given in an amount that ends with an even number.

It can be given in exchange for a child’s new year greetings, or be stuck under the child’s pillow during the night.

TABOOS

There is a long list of things that the Chinese will avoid during the Spring Festival, though the specific items vary from one region to another.

Chinese households carry out a full clean before New Year’s Eve, partially to usher in a “clean” new year. But also because doing it after the start of the new year is believed to clear the good luck.

Quarrels, crying and cursing are forbidden, as people fear that bad behavior on New Year’s Eve will continue throughout the coming year.

Many superstitious northern Chinese also believe that if a person has a haircut during the first month of the lunar year, his maternal uncle will die.

As a result, some barbershops are open nearly 18 hours a day for the pre-holiday rush for haircuts, which lasts for at least two weeks before New Year’s Eve.

While women like to spruce up for the holiday, men with short hair even like to get an extra haircut before the new year, in case their hair is too long in one month before their next haircut, which is often scheduled for the second day of the second lunar month.

The tradition can be traced back to an ancient story about a barber who could not afford a decent new year gift for his maternal uncle, choosing instead to give his uncle a haircut that made him look many years younger. After his uncle passed away, the barber missed him very much, crying with the coming of each new year. The Chinese phrase for “missing one’s maternal uncle” (“si jiu”) is very close in pronunciation to the phrase for “death of one’s maternal uncle.”

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