Kung Hei Fat Choy! Yesterday, February 19th on the Western Gregorian calendar, marked the official New Year on the Chinese lunisolar calendar. In Chinese communities worldwide, the next fifteen days will be filled with celebration, ritual, feasts and family, all centered around the concept of rebirth, regeneration, and renewed prosperity.
The ancient beginnings of this observance and celebration are rooted in the Chinese mythologies of the Nian. A lion-like beast residing under the sea and in the mountains, the Nian would come out of hiding in the early Spring to feast and forage on villagers, livestock, and crops, his tastes usually suited to small children when possible. The people of the villages began placing food offerings outside their homes at the beginning of their lunar calendar, in hopes their sacrifices would satiate the beast.
One year, though, a villager was visited by a god, who told him the Nian’s weaknesses were loud sounds and the color red. Hoping to keep the beast away entirely, villagers began decorating their homes with red lanterns and spring scrolls, as well as setting off firecrackers as an additional deterrent. This effectively kept the Nian hidden from humanity and assured the village’s safety, and over time the precautions taken by the people grew into tradition. In more modern times, this mythology and the Nian itself is represented in celebrations by the dancing lion, a recognizable part of Chinese New Year celebrations even to the uninitiated Westerner.
Celebrations and observances for the turn of the lunar year actually begin nearly a month prior to the actual start of the new year. The Laba holiday, named for a traditional porridge served in conjunction with this observance, is celebrated on the eighth day of the lunar month prior to the new year. It is intended as remembrance of an ancient winter solstice festival, and is held in honor of the gods. For those who practice Buddhism, the Laba holiday coincides with Bodhi Day, which is an observance of the Buddha’s act of selfless ascetism and attainment of enlightenment.
In the days immediately leading up to the New Year, all members of a family contribute to a thorough cleansing of the home, the intent of which is to sweep away the bad fortune of the previous year and make room for an influx of good luck and prosperity. This cleansing involves the clearing and immolation of altars and tributes from the previous year, as well as a sending of the gods to report on the family to the Jade Emperor through the burning of effigies.
The most important event leading up to Chinese New Year, and one that is likened to the Western traditions of Thanksgiving or Christmas, is celebrated on New Years Eve of the lunar calendar, and is known as Nian Ye Fan, the Reunion Dinner. The dinner, which intends to reunite the entire family, consists of several traditional dishes, including a selection of meats, dumplings symbolic of wealth, and a glutinous cake meant to bring prosperity to the entire family. Traditionally, families attend temples in the hours leading up to midnight to pray, however, in modern times, it is more customary to hold lavish celebrations with dancing and fireworks.
Immediately after midnight, in the very first hours of the New Year, celebrants first ensure that all malicious spirits and beings are scared away before opening the doors of their homes and selves, both literal and symbolic, to welcome the dieties of the heavens and earth. Many people, especially Buddhists, fast or otherwise abstain from meat products, and refrain from killing any living thing. It is also considered bad luck to use a broom, cutting utensils, or fire — so, it’s not only fortunate but in fact necessary that prior day’s celebrations involved large-scale cooking and cleaning.
It is also customary for elder members of the family to present junior members with red envelopes containing cash and/or gifts of prosperity. Business leaders often use this occasion to deliver workplace bonuses, as well. This practice has led to adoption of one of several traditional phrases associated with the New Year’s celebrations: Kung Hei Fat Choy.
The rough translation? “Congratulations and be prosperous, now give me a red envelope!”
Stay tuned in the coming days and weeks for more information on this colorful, historic, and catalytic holiday observance, and for detail on the specific celebrations and their mythological symbolism over the next fifteen days of Chinese New Year! Have a personal story about or connection with this holiday, or just some related thoughts to share? Sound off in the comments!
For a completely unrelated but brilliant blog written by an Asian man, please visit Harsh Reality! (I really only linked to the Opinionated Man for my own selfish and self-serving reasons, but read his blog anyways. It is really fuckin’ good.)
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