In the West, the new year begins at the start of January, and with it brings nationwide promises to do better, think better, be better in the form of New Year’s resolutions.
This same premise can be found in the Eastern Hemisphere. The concept transcends continents: all around the world, people can be found making promises to themselves in an effort to improve their lives.
The new year is a time for new beginnings and fresh starts. But it is also a time for celebration. New Year is celebrated much the same way across the globe, with fireworks at the stroke of midnight and large family dinners. However, in China, many of these New Year festivities are rooted in centuries-old traditions and rituals.
While the primary focus during Chinese New Year is predominantly on family reunion, there are many other customs that are rigidly observed during the fifteen days of celebration, from New Year’s Eve until the Lantern Festival.
The act of cleaning and cleansing is an intrinsic part of festive traditions. While it originates from the time that people believed bad spirits would hide away under furniture and so it was necessary to clear these away, more recently it has become less symbolic of driving away evil and more to make a good impression on the family members who come and visit.
The New Year’s Eve dinner is perhaps the most important dinner of the year. It acts as a family reunion: people often travel across expanses of land and sea to go back to the villages where they were once brought up.
It is traditional on this night to serve fish, often with the head and tail intact and facing the eldest person at the table as a mark of respect, and round, crimped dumplings filled with meat, as these two dishes symbolise prosperity and fortune. It is often the case that ingredients are symbolic due to their name and the homophones associated with it: for example, the world ‘fish’ sounds like the word ‘abundance’, and thus eating it will bless the diner with abundance in the coming year.
As in the West, fireworks are set off at midnight to celebrate the coming year. However, this ritual in the East is embedded in Chinese folklore. The fireworks and firecrackers were previously believed to scare off evil spirits and monsters, specifically the Nian, a creature who would terrorise villages at New Year.
On New Year’s Day, red packets or envelopes containing money are given to children in order to keep them safe from sickness and ill health, with the wish that the children live a long and happy life. It is believed that this tradition originated during the Qin Dynasty, where the elderly would string together eight coins on a red thread and give them to the younger people in their families. This money was called ‘yasui qian’, meaning ‘warding off evil spirits’, and this act was thought to protect the elderly from sickness and death.
These traditions and rituals are an integral part of Chinese New Year celebrations, established within every part of the most auspicious festival in the Chinese calendar.