2013/02/07Learn more about the Spring Festival

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Chinese New Year or the Spring Festival is the most important festivity in China. It marks the beginning of a new lunar year as well as that of the northern spring. It is also a time for family reunion as people travel back to their hometowns, creating the largest migratory movement on the planet. There are many legends and stories about how the Spring Festival came to be and what should be done during this time. Here, we provide you with some information to ring in the New Year of the Snake. 

The Origin of Chinese New Year

It is said traditions for celebrating the New Year or Spring Festival started in the Shang Dynasty (c. 1600 BC-c. 1100 BC) when people made sacrifices to the gods and ancestors at the end of an old year and the beginning of a new one. 

The majority of tales refer to Nian, which in modern Chinese solely means “year”, but was originally the name of a monster that started to prey on people the night before the beginning of a new year. The beast came out from its burrow on New Year’s Eve to devour people.
Therefore, on every New Year’s Eve, every household would have supper together, which now continues to be an important tradition. It is said that on one occasion a young child ran out and scared Nian by wearing red, so until today people wear red and hang different decorations in this color to keep warding of the monster and other evil spirits. 

Things to do during the Spring Festival

The Spring Festival falls on the 1st day of the 1st lunar month, often one month later than the Gregorian calendar. It will last until the middle of the first lunar month and people usually travel and start getting ready for this event several weeks before the eve of the festival. The most important days are Spring Festival Eve and the first three days of the New Year. The Chinese government stipulates people have seven days off for this holiday. 

Before the Spring Festival Eve- 

Sweeping the dust

“Dust” is homophonic with “chen”(尘)in Chinese, which means old and past. In this way, “sweeping the dust” before the Spring Festival means a thorough cleaning of houses to sweep away bad luck in the past year. This custom shows a good wish of putting away old things to welcome a new life. So, just before the Spring Festival comes, every household will give a thorough cleaning to bid farewell to the old year and usher in the new.  

Spring Couplet, Paper cuts, Upsided Fu and other decorations
“The Spring Couplet”, also called “couplet” and “a pair of antithetical phrases”, is a special form of literature in China. The Spring Couplet is composed of two antithetical sentences on both sides of the door and a horizontal scroll bearing an inscription, usually an auspicious phrase, above the gate. The content varies from house owners' wishes for a bright future to good luck for the New Year.
Paper-cuts, usually with auspicious patterns, give a happy and prosperous atmosphere of the Festival and express the good wishes of Chinese people looking forward to a good life.
The Chinese character "fu" (meaning blessing or happiness) is a must. The character put on paper can be pasted normally or upside down, for in Chinese the "reversed fu" is homophonic with "fu comes", both being pronounced as "fudaole." 

Also, pictures of the god of doors and wealth will be posted on front doors to ward off evil spirits and welcome peace and abundance. Two big red lanterns can be raised on both sides of the front door. As mentioned earlier, the color red symbolizes good luck and is believed is what scared the beast Nian away. 

Oranges indicate abundances so many houses will have a bowl with 8 to 10 oranges or an orange tree with special phrases and red decorations hanging from the tree.  

During the Festival-

Dinner on the Spring Festival Eve and Seeing the New Year in

People attach great importance to Spring Festival Eve. At that time, all family members eat dinner together. The meal is more luxurious than usual. Dishes such as chicken, fish and bean curd cannot be excluded, because in Chinese, their pronunciations, respectively "ji", "yu" and "doufu," mean auspiciousness, abundance and richness. After the dinner, the whole family will sit together, chatting and watching TV. In recent years, the Spring Festival party broadcast on China Central Television Station (CCTV) is essential entertainment for the Chinese both at home and abroad. According to custom, each family will stay up to see the New Year in.
Red Envelopes

On the morning of the New Year, people dress up, greet their families and it is usual to give money in red envelopes called hóng bào or lai see. These are usually distributed among the elderly, children and youngsters to wish them prosperity and good luck.

Traditional foods

People in northern China will eat jiaozi, or dumplings, for breakfast, as they think "jiaozi" in sound means "bidding farewell to the old and ushering in the new". Also, the shape of the dumpling is like gold ingot from ancient China. So people eat them and wish for money and treasure.

Southern Chinese eat niangao (New Year cake made of glutinous rice flour) on this occasion, because as a homophone, niangao means "higher and higher, one year after another."

People will eat Yuanxiao, or Tangyuan, on the fifteenth day of the first lunar month, so that day is also called the "Yuanxiao Festival." It is small dumpling balls made of glutinous rice flour with rose petals, sesame, bean paste, jujube paste, walnut meat, dried fruit, sugar and edible oil as filling. Tangyuan can be boiled, fried or steamed. It tastes sweet and delicious. What's more,tangyuan in Chinese has a similar pronunciation with "tuanyuan”, meaning reunion. So people eat them to denote union, harmony and happiness for the family.

Fireworks and street festivals

Burning fireworks was once the most typical custom on the Spring Festival. People thought the spluttering sound could help drive away evil spirits. However, such an activity was completely or partially forbidden in some cities once the government took security, noise and pollution factors into consideration. As a replacement, some buy tapes with firecracker sounds to listen to, some break little balloons to get the sound too, while others buy firecracker handicrafts to hang in the living room.

The lively atmosphere not only fills every household, but also permeates to streets and lanes. A series of activities such as lion dancing, dragon lantern dancing, lantern festivals and temple fairs will be held for days. The Spring Festival then comes to an end when the Lantern Festival is finished.  

The Chinese Zodiac and the Year of the Snake

The Chinese Zodiac is composed of twelve animals, each attributed to a lunar year. Stories talk about a race, a banquet, as well as a conference, summoned by the Jade Emperor in ancient times in order to pick the animals to represent the zodiac. This marked the order of the zodiac: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Pig. 

The Chinese Zodiac also considers five elements:  Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water. 

This coming lunar year is the New Year of the Snake. The wise snake is considered as a sacred animal of positive aspect and good luck. However, it also symbolizes change, as the animal changes skin, and in the past Snake years have been dramatic and de-stabilizing. The Snake is prudent and passionate in its perseverance, watchful and analytical. It is recommended that all decisions taken this year are well studied, and that one proceeds with caution and discretion. Also, one must have patience, as it will seem to be a slow-moving year.