Chinese New Year – Traditions and Legends

The Chinese New Year is undoubtedly the most important holiday for Chinese around the world. The holiday marks the beginning of a new year according to the lunar calendar and thats the reason why the date of Chinese New Year changes each year. New Year festivities traditionally start on the first day of the new moon  and continue until the fifteenth day, when the moon is brightest.                                              For the Chinese, this is the  time of family reunion. Traditions and rituals are very carefully observed in everything from food to clothing. Family members gather at each other’s homes for visits and meals of traditional foods. Giving gifts and displaying traditional decorations is a big part of the festrivity and everything  is focused on bringing good luck for the new year and celebrating the coming of spring . Traditional foods include nian gao or sweet sticky rice cake and savory dumplings – which are round and symbolize never-ending wealth, Chinese dumplings, long noodles, and oranges. The noodles symbolize long life and oranges are a sign of completeness. The delicacies also include prawns, for liveliness and happiness, dried oysters (or ho xi), for all things good, raw fish salad or yu sheng to bring good luck and prosperity, Fai-hai (Angel Hair), an edible hair-like seaweed to bring prosperity, and dumplings boiled in water (Jiaozi) signifying a long-lost good wish for a family.

A huge clean-up gets underway days before the New Year, with the belief that it will help them get rid of bad luck and get the house ready to accept good luck in the year ahead. Doors and windowpanes are given a new coat of paint, usually red. The doors and windows are then decorated with paper cuts and couplets with themes such as happiness, wealth and longevity printed on them.

People travel long distances to meet family. And in China, a huge migration, Known as the “Spring movement” or Chunyun takes place in China during this period where many travelers brave the crowds to get to their hometowns. Trains, buses, and planes are always packed. No matter how grueling the journey may turn out to be, all of the inconveniences are considered to be worth it once the family gathers around the table to eat their Lunar New Year’s Eve dinner, the most important meal of the year.

For the New Year celebrations people wear red clothes, decorate homes with poems on red paper, and give Hang Bao or  “lucky money” in red envelopes. Red symbolizes fire, and it is believed that it can drive away bad luck. The Hang Bao tradition involves married couples giving children and unmarried adults money in red envelopes.                                               Chinese New Year celebrations have their origin with end-of-harvest celebrations when people would offer thanks to gods for good harvests and praying for a good crop in the following year.

There are various legends on the origins of the New Year celebration. One of the popular legend includes the story of a terrible mythical monster, Nian, (the Chinese word for “year”) who preyed on the villagers, during the start of the spring season. Therefore, every year at that time, all the villagers would go deep into the mountains to hide from Nian. One Chinese New Year’s Eve a grey haired man appeared in the village. He asked permission to stay for the night and assured everyone that he would chase away the beast. No one believed him. But he remained steadfast and stayed back alone in the village. When the beast came to the village to create havoc, it was met with a sudden burst of explosion of firecrackers, lots of light and fluttering red banners.  The loud noise, flashes of light, and the red banners scared the beast and it fled away.
The next day, as the people came down from the mountains, they found the village intact and safe. The old man, who the villagers believed was a deity, who had come to help free them of the beast,  told the villagers to ward off the evil Nian by making loud noises with drums and firecrackers and hanging red paper cutouts and scrolls on their doors as the red color  and the loud noise and light sacred Nian. Since then, every Chinese New Year’s Eve, families would hang red banners, set off fire crackers, and light their lamps the whole night through, awaiting the Chinese New Year. The custom spread far and wide and became a grand traditional celebration of the “Passing of Nian”.

Legend also has it that in ancient times Buddha asked all the animals to meet him on the Chinese New Year. Twelve animals came, and Buddha named a year after each one. He announced that the people born in each animal’s year would have some of that animal’s personality. 2012 is the year of the dragon and it is believed that those born in dragon years are innovative, brave, and passionate.

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