11:27 am PST

The Chinese New Year is also known as the Spring Festival since the spring season in the Chinese calendar starts with lichun, the first solar term in a Chinese calendar year. The Chinese calendar divides a year into 24 solar terms, and while lichun usually lasts from Feb. 4 to Feb. 18, it marks the beginning of spring. The Chinese New Year is endowed with features of ancient Chinese culture. The festival starts earlier than the first day of the first lunar month; it starts from the 8th day or the 23rd or 24th day of the twelfth lunar month when the Kitchen god returns to Heaven to report to the Jade Emperor, the emperor of the heavens, on the activities of every household over the past year. And the festival ends on the 15th day of the first lunar month, the Lantern Festival. According to legend, the custom of the Spring Festival dates back to the rule of Emperor Shun, a legendary 23rd-22nd century BC leader of ancient China. Emperor Yao relinquished his leadership to Shun. After ascending to the throne, Shun offered sacrifices to Heaven, as well as to the mountains and hills. From then on, people referred to the day of the sacrificial ceremony as the first day of the new year, that is, the first day of the first lunar month. The ancients put much emphasis on astrology, a calendar, and studying the movement of heavenly bodies. It was believed that human affairs are correlated with the positions of celestial objects. The orbital period of the Earth moving around the Sun is a year in the calendar. The orbital period, divided into four seasons, starts with the first day of the first lunar month and ends at midnight of the 30th or 29th day of the 12 lunar month.

Among the numerous Legends of the Spring Festival, the legend of the Nian is the best-known.

The Nian, a ferocious beast with a lion’s head and a cow’s body, lived in the depths of the forest. The beast fed on animals in the mountains. But in winter when food was scarce, it ran out of the forest to attack villagers and animals. Therefore, as winter approached, the villagers felt scared when mentioning “Nian,” and panic spread quickly through the whole village.

Though the Nian was a ferocious creature, it was afraid of the color red, burning torches and loud noises. Therefore, during the winter every household attached a red board to their door and kept a pile of firewood burning outside the house. Then everyone stayed awake at night, hitting gongs and drums to make loud noises. Seeing the red doors and burning firewood in front of each household and hearing the deafening noises, the Nian was scared away from the village. Since then the beast had never appeared to attack the villagers and their livestock. The next morning, people congratulated each other on their survival and called this day a “new year.” As a result, on the Eve of the Chinese New Year people attach a red board to their door and leave a pile of firewood burning outside the house and they make loud banging sounds. The next morning, they also congratulate one another. This tradition has been passed down until now. That is the origin of attaching Spring Festival couplets written on red paper and setting off firecrackers during the Chinese New Year.

Traditions of Chinese New Year:

The Eve of the Chinese New Year is the last day of the year, that is, the evening prior to the arrival of a new year. Originally it means, “The eve that sends away the old year and ushers in a new year.” It bears the auspicious meaning that the old will be stripped away and the new will be greeted. There are three major things that day: to worship ancestors, to have a family reunion dinner, and to stay up late seeing the Old Year out and the New Year in. Offerings to the Divine will be placed on the altar at noon, with candles and incense burning. This ceremonious practice will last until the 5th day of the first lunar month. Fish, a symbol of abundance, is a required dish for the family reunion dinner. Following the dinner, comes the desirable moment for kids—to receive lucky money from the elderly. Then, children will stay up late to greet the new year, which is also considered a symbolic act of praying to the Divine for longevity of their parents.

Here is a list of don’ts during the Chinese New Year. To begin with, there is no trash dumping from the first day of the first lunar month. When sweeping the floor, one should start from the outer part and move on to the inner part, or good fortune will be swept outside. Trash shouldn’t be dumped until the 5th day of the first lunar month. Needles or knives shouldn’t be used during the festival so as to allow females who have toiled for a whole year to take a rest. Creditors shouldn’t force debtors to pay their debts during the festival so as to give them restful holidays. In addition, words indicative of ill omens should be avoided, nor can people take medicine, scold children, quarrel or break things.

There are some popular Chinese New Year nursery rhymes. Among them is the First Lunar Month Rhyme, beginning with, “Awaken early the first day of the year, also early the second day, and sleep in third day.” The first 15 days of the first lunar month are bestowed with differing meanings. For instance, people awaken early to worship deities and ancestors or to visit temples to pray for good fortune. Then the young have to pay the elderly a courtesy call. The second day is the day for married daughters to visit their parents. According to legend, the third day is the day for mice to get married. Therefore, everyone goes to bed early lest they should interfere with the wedding of mice. The 7th day is a birthday for humanity. According to the Divination Book, Heaven began to create beings on earth the first day of the first month. “On the 1st day chickens were created, the 2nd day dogs, the 3rd day pigs, the 4th day sheep, the 5th day cows, the 6th day horses, the 7th day humans, and the 8th day valleys.” The 15th day of the first month is called the Lantern Festival, also known as Shangyuan Festival, when people hang out various beautiful lanterns to celebrate the first full moon of the Lunar year. The 15th day of the 7th lunar month is Zhongyuan Festival, while the 15th day of the 10th lunar month is Xiayuan Festival. The three festivals are called the Sanyuan Festivals.

Of all the poems in praise of the Spring Festival, the catchy one is Yuan Day by Wang Anshi (1021-1086), a statesman and poet of the Song Dynasty.

Amid the noises of firecrackers the old year goes away,
With the warmth of spring breeze we enjoy Tusu wine.
Streaming morning sun rays on the front door of each household,
New couplets are shining with old ones gone.

Yuan Day refers to the first day of the first lunar month.

Tusu wine is traditionally drunk during the Spring Festival to expel epidemic diseases and to disperse cold. Several kinds of Chinese herbs are immersed in wine to make Tusu wine. It is said the original ingredients of the wine is a prescription by Hua Tuo, a renowned pharmacist during the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220) and Three Kingdoms Period (189-280).

By : Lin Meiying