Kung Hei Fat Choi – Happy Chinese New Year!
I thought I would take this opportunity to write a few words about this wonderful celebration which nowadays takes place wherever there are Chinese people!
There’s so much history, legend, myths, memories and even recipes, all relating to the subject, you could write volumes on the topic, alas, we will cover some interesting stuff and give you a whistlestop tour of the hows, whys, and whens of Chinese New Year.
You may already know that the Chinese place a lot of ‘meanings’ to almost everything in life, and of course Chinese New year is no exception. Let’s start with the origins of this celebration;
According to Chinese legend and myth, Chinese New Year began with a battle against a mythical beast, known as Nian.
Nian would come on the first day of Chinese New Year and pretty much cause devastation, eating crops, livestock, villagers, and in particular, children. So, to protect themselves, all the villagers would put food in front of their doors at the start of the New Year in a bid to feed the Nian, and stop it from eating everything else, such as the villagers. It was also deduced that the Nian was afraid of the colour red, as on occasion, the children were playing outside, wearing red clothing and the Nian was scared off upon seeing the colours. After that realisation, the villagers decided to hang red lanterns and red scrolls from their doors and windows, and for extra scare tactics, they started fireworks (surprisingly, most even today are also red in colour!) with loud bangs to scare off Nian. Suffice to say, Nian never visited the village again.
Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival, is the most important date in the Lunar calendar, and the most celebrated by the Chinese. The date varies from year to year, but is generally between January and February. This coming year, 2013, it will start on 10th February, and lasts for fifteen days. Each year is different and is named after an animal. So for 2013, we will be in the year of the snake.
So what actually happens these days? Well, not that much has changed from the myth of Nian! For anyone who has experienced a Chinese New Year celebration, you will be only too aware that the colour RED is everywhere!! You may also have seen a lion dance take place, and heard the fire crackers banging loudly into the smoke filled sky. Although there is not much information on Nian, it would appear that the beast has been made into a lion type creature with an extremely long body, depending on how many lion dancers there are! The colours of the lions will vary, but you cannot miss hearing the loud bashing and clanging of the drums and brass instruments accompanying the lion dance, and of course, now we know it is to ward off Nian and stop it from eating all the villagers. At the end of a lion dance you will often see the lion being fed a lettuce, dangling from an long cane, again, this could be to represent the feeding of the Nian by the villagers all those years ago.
Today, Chinese New Year is really a huge event in the lives of Chinese people. Their customs vary a little from region to region, but the customs are all about saying goodbye to the old year and bringing in the new year.
Leading up to the the Eve of Chinese New Year, it is customary to give your house a spring clean, and I mean a thorough cleansing! This is to sweep away any ill fortune and to open the way for incoming fortune. All the brushes and brooms are then put away and not used until after the celebrations, for fear of sweeping away the new year, thus all cleaning has to be done before the end of the year. Varying amounts of money will be spent of decorations, in the way of lanterns, scrolls, mainly with chinese characters wishing health, happiness, long life, and good fortune, food, clothing (new clothing, particularly shoes are of significance, hair cuts), and gifts, and red packets, or red envelopes, containing money. Businesses are expected to pay off their ‘old’ debt and and this even extends to debts of gratitude where gifts and rice can often be given in business for the start of the coming year.
On the Eve of Chinese New Year, it is customary for a huge family gathering to take place, and of course when you combine Chinese people in any numbers, there will always be food involved!. There are some special dishes which have strong meaning to the celebrations, for example, Buddha’s Delight, is a vegetarian dish and its ingredients vary hugely throughout Southeast Asia. It is traditionally served in Chinese households on the first day of the Chinese New Year, originating from the old Buddhist practice that one should maintain a vegetarian diet in the first five days of the new year, as a form of self purification. Each ingredient of the dish is ascribed a particular auspicious meaning. Some of the ingredients (I will list only some!!!), are listed below. If you click on any of them, you will find that most have healing properties or are very good for you, even though some may look unusual or scary!
19. Wood ear (also called black fungus)
You will also find a whole fish on the table. Only some of the fish will be eaten, and the rest kept in the fridge for the following day, so ‘there will be plenty of fish’ for the coming New Year.
By contrast, in the South, it is customary to make a Chinese New year cake, Lin gao, which literally means “new year cake” with a homophonous meaning of “increasingly prosperous year in year out”.This cake undergoes a long steaming process and is then sliced into pieces, coated in beaten egg and fried. It’s very sticky, chewy and delicious!
As mentioned at the outset, there are many more customs and dishes, far too many to mention on a blog post!
My love of Chinese New Year and its many fond memories come about from being born and bred in Hong Kong. I remember all the relatives visiting our home and we theirs; sitting around an enormous round table in a noisy restaurant sharing a huge variety of delicious food, made special by the fact it would be ‘Chinese New Year’ food, so really, really special food! The receiving of lucky red envelopes from my elders and feeling through the envelope the shape of the coin to guess how much was inside, eating ‘Sugas’ sweets and candied coconut ribbons, the 6 foot Cherry blossom tree we would have in our house…the memories are endless, and lovely! It really doesn’t matter where in the world you live, memories never leave you, and you can always go on creating new memories every year!
My advice to you would be to find out where the nearest Chinese New Year celebrations are taking place and go armed with your camera and an empty belly. You will enjoy the atmosphere, the food, and the entertainment that’s for sure! You will also be able to create some lovely memories to share in years to come!
So Kung Hei Fat Choi to you all, and we wish you good health and prosperity in the year of the snake!