The biggest holiday of the year...
Spaniards shove twelve grapes in their mouth. Brazilians wear special underwear. Finnish cast molten tin into a container of water, interpreting the shape the metal forms after hardening. Americans make out as they watch a LED light globe fall fifty feet down Times Square. Each country has developed its set of styles and superstitions to celebrate the turn of a new year, an opportunity to redeem and renew oneself when the minute and second hand meet. But the Chinese do not exercise spontaneity; in fact, Chinese New Year “celebrations” commence before one can even consider festivity.
The Legend of Year
Every New Year’s Eve, the beast Year encroaches a small village to devour livestock and hurt peoples’ lives. Starving sheep and unwatered plants left abandoned, villagers flee to the mountains to avoid Year’s damage.
On one particular New Year’s Eve, a foreign old man went from house to house begging for food and shelter. Though the village concentrated more on the fire-blowing beast than a needy elderly, one old woman answered the door. She gave the man some food and advised him to escape to the mountain. The old man, daring and dim, declared: “If you let me stay at your home for one night, I can drive away Year.” This old man knew Year’s fear more than the beast knew itself. Most frightening was the stabbing color red, explosions and fires perturbing.
In the middle of the night, Year expectedly broke into the village. But unexpected was the atmosphere; first, the bothersome odor of burning wood caught the beasts’s nose, and then it spotted a door covered with red paper. Suddenly, a crackling explosion towered above the roof and an old man dressed in red emerged from the house. Slipping and sliding in its own insecurity, Year fled back to the colorless, harmless haven of the mountains. Year added elderlies as its second biggest fear.
The next day, the first day of the new year, villagers returned to spotless homes and courtyards. The old woman, who first doubted the old man’s ambitions, praised his plan and spread the colorful tactics to neighbors. Chinese adopted the old man’s customs, whether lighting fires and candles, sealing doors with red paper as a protective skin, or igniting fire crackers. These traditions still persist, regardless of whether the mystical beast’s yearly slithering leads him to another village or the linebreaks of ancient texts.
Families begin 8 days before New Year’s Eve, on the 23rd of the 12th lunar month, cleaning their homes, prepping meals, and lining their windows with papercuts and doors with couplets.
During this young holiday period, households receive the Kitchen God––a spiritual figure like Santa Claus––who rounds up the annual naughty and nice list for the Jade Emperor.
23rd of the 12th lunar month
Tonight, the kitchen god visits heaven and delivers the “naughty and nice” report to the Jade Emperor, who then sentences each family with either fortune or calamity. Thus, families bribe the kitchen god in forms of worship offerings, including mood-boosting wine, candy for his sweet tooth, and miniature crafts.
24th of the 12th lunar month
Households sweep dust out of the door to remove bad luck.
25th of the 12th lunar month
The Jade Emperor personally descends to Earth perform one last inspection and determine familial blessings for the coming year. Unlike the kitchen god, sugary offerings cannot draw the Emperor in, only diligent prayers, sacrifices, and tasteless delicacies such as census porridge and tofu.
26th of the 12th lunar month
Counties host markets to supply shoppers from neighboring villages in a tradition called Ban Nianhuo 办年货, meaning Spring Festival Shopping. Families designate this day to visit the butcher to cook Nian Rou 年肉 or New Year Meat, as well as Hong Shao Rou 红烧肉 or red-braised pork belly.
27th of the 12th lunar month
Mothers balance their burden between bathing ambulant children and laundry, both removing bad smells and bad luck of the previous year and welcoming freshness.
28th of the 12th lunar month
Cooks stock up their pantries with starchy staples, nuturing bread dough in hopes for proper growth and rise.
Households line their window with window papercuts, where different regions host different shapes and designs. Neverthless, one that remains regardless of region is the bright red paper to scare away the beast, Year. Households also attach spring and lintel couplets to their doors as lyrics to their new year wishes, as well as an upside-down Fu, a symbol of the arrival of blessings.
29th of the 12th lunar month
To worship ancestors, the whole family visits the graveyard and makes offerings. Households also steam yesterday’s risen dough to make steamed buns.
New Year’s Eve
New Year’s Eve Meal 年夜饭, also known as nian ye fan or Reunion Dinner, gathers the whole family in front of the table for the satiation of the hearts and stomachs. Dumplings resemble gold nuggets for prosperity, long noodles for longevity, rice cake for its implication of promotion, leafy vegetables for their homophony with the Chinese word for affection, fish for abundance, chicken for luckiness, jujube dates for the early arrival of Spring, persimmons for a wish come true, almonds for happiness, and tofu for family blessing.
Lucky money 压岁钱 is passed from the wrinkly fingers of elders to the smooth youthful palms of children. Lucky money also defends young children from the demons.
Chinese often stay up overnight, drinking and chatting, to await the new year.
New Year’s Day
Doors swing open with firecrackers, commencing the first holiday custom of the new year with a literal bang. Called “opening the canon 开门,” the entire village induces long strings of firecrackers wrapped in red paper, bright trails slithering throughout the neighborhood. Wearing red also brings good luck and prosperity on the Chinese Spring Festival.
Relatives and friends greet each other in formal hand gestures.
At the Spring Festival Fair, two-dancer teams animate a costumed lion with ferocious and acrobatic choreography.
During the dragon dance, performers also hoist bamboo sticks attached to a fabric dragon, one stick for each section of the body. Too bulky for flipping, these giant dragons slither through the streets flashing their elaborate decorations and heavy makeup.
2nd of the 1st Lunar Month
Early in the morning, women at home preside over the “pot opening ceremony 开锅” by frying turnip cake and fish in peanut oil. Some suburban villages still retain the custom of “releasing life” by purchasing live carps from the market, covering the fisheye with red paper, and then releasing it to the river pond after worshipping god.
3rd of the 1st Lunar Month
- The third day of the first lunar month bustles actively not among humans, but animals. It hosts the birthdays of the most important figures of Chinese cuisine– pigs and grains. Households refrain from consuming pork and rice, which can bring meager harvest this upcoming year.
- To sober up and patch up any emotional holes bored from the explicit festival, households traditionally incinerated door god stickers to indicate that the past year is over and the family is back on their normal schedule.
4th of the First Lunar Month
Following the meaty celebration of animals is another livestock’s birthday, “Sheep Day”, when sheep were created. Households must stow away their lamb skewers and typical peppercorn-fennel marinades, as sheep symbolize good fortune and consumption brings calamity.
5th of the First Lunar Month
Shop-owners return to work and prepare to open their market, worshipping the gods of wealth to attract good business for the coming year. Business people also worship the five gods of wealth of the five cardinal directions to pray for good profit.
6th of the First Lunar Month
People rid of poverty by burning trash and worn away clothes on the streets; others offer pancakes and lit candles on the worship altar to gesture poverty out of the door.
On this final day, households can finally clean toilets and worship the toilet god. All stores and restaurants officially open to customers known as “open the market 启市.”
Our recipes run the gamut from appetizers such as the auspicious eight treasure dish, to the classical New Year’s beer-braised duck and fish, to tutorials on how to pack the most intricate and personalize red packet.
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