New Year’s Eve
New Year’s Eve was a rare relaxing day for an emperor during the Northern Song Dynasty. The Palace would hold a grand “Big Nuo” celebration to welcome gods and expel evil spirits. People wore different masks and paraded along the streets. At midnight, the sound of firecrackers from the Palace could be heard.
For ordinary people, there were two important things to do during the New Year’s Eve: first was, eating New Year’s Eve dinner together as a family. The second was, staying up all night on New Year’s Eve. New Year’s Eve dinner typically lasted all night as family members ate slowly and enjoyed each others’ company with an indescribable warmth in their hearts. Fish was an indispensable dish. The Chinese characters for “Fish” and “I” are homonyms, and it was a symbol of auspicious surplus.
At midnight, people would begin to set off firecrackers to dispel ghosts and monsters. Since the invention of gunpowder during the Song Dynasty, firecrackers developed into paper tubes bundling gunpowder or hemp stems wrapping gunpowder that were compiled into strings to be fired together. They were known as compiled guns, and have been popular since. Chinese people long for the New Yearfilled with the sound of firecrackers. (between New Year and filled, there shouldn’t be a comma.)
After setting off firecrackers, people would return home to pay their respects to Heaven and Earth, ancestors, and gods. Adults also gave children the New Year lucky money. After that, everyone would sit around to chat and play games throughout the night.
Chinese New Year’s Day
In the early morning of New Year’s Day, people would begin what was known as the “New Year’s Visit”. As for some high-ranking officials and noble lords, if they had too many neighbors, relatives and friends to greet door to door, they would send their servants with name cards, which were called “flying posts”, similar to today’s greeting cards.
Decorated tents were set up in the main streets of Kaifeng (the capital city during the Song Dynasty) where jewelry, clothes, shoes, cosmetics, flowers and toys were sold. Also, singing, dancing and acrobatic performances were held in some of the tents. Many people, rich and poor, dressed in new clothes and came out to shop on the busy streets of the capital.
On this day, a grand morning meeting would be held in the Palace, where the emperor would receive greetings from ministers and foreign envoys. Envoys from Liao, Western Xia, Korea, Uighur, Dali, Dashi and other countries went up to the Palace to pay respects and offerings. The emperor of the Song Dynasty would reward the envoys respectively. After the morning meeting, envoys from different countries would tour and join in the festivities in the capital city.
The Lantern Festival is celebrated on the 15th day of the first month in the Chinese calendar. The night of the fifteenth is the first full moon of the New Year. During the festival days, tents would be set up in Kaifeng, where performances would be held with singing, dancing and acrobatics, as well as magic shows and feats of supernormal abilities.
On the first day of the Lantern Festival, the emperor would visit the Xuande Building, where he would watch the folk customs through a curtain. A stage was also specially set up downstairs with armed Imperial Guards standing on both sides, where artists from the imperial music office performed song and dance, as well as drama.
On 16th of the first month, after breakfast, the emperor would once again visit Xuande Building and meet people. After the departure of the emperor, all the official families would visit Xiangguo Temple. A music tent was set up in front of the main hall of the monastery, where artists performed music. In addition, other monasteries in the city of Kaifeng were opened for people to burn incense and worship Buddhas. Tents were set up to play music and lanterns were lit.
Uniquely designed lanterns in each horse shop, fragrant herbal medicine shop, tea house and tavern, often attracted passerbys to stop and admire them. In addition to enjoying the display of the lanterns, visitors could also enjoy a variety of food in the streets.
By 18th of the first month, all lanterns would have been removed, and the noise and excitement would not reappear until the following New Year.
Traces of customs from thousands of years ago can still be seen today, and the Chinese New Year remains a grand festival that stirs much anticipation.
Author: New San Cai Editorial