THE Chinese New Year is now popularly known as the Spring Festival because it starts from the beginning of Spring (the first of the 24 terms in coordination with the changes of nature). Its origin is too old to be traced although there are several explanations.
All agree, however, that the word Nian, which in modern Chinese solely means “year”, was originally the name of a monster beast that started to prey on people the night before the beginning of a new year.
One legend goes that the beast Nian had a very big mouth that would swallow a great many people with one bite.
People were very scared. One day, an old man came to their rescue, offering to subdue Nian.
To Nian he said: “I hear say that you are very capable, but can you swallow the other beasts of prey on Earth instead of people who are by no means your worthy opponents?”
So, swallow it did many of the beasts of prey on Earth that also harassed people and their domestic animals from time to time.
After that, the old man disappeared riding the beast Nian. He turned out to be an immortal god. Now that Nian is gone and other beasts of prey are also scared into forests, people begin to enjoy their peaceful life.
It is a combination of Christmas, Western New Year and Thanksgiving
Before the old man left, he had told people to put up red paper decorations on their windows and doors at each year’s end to scare away Nian in case it sneaked back again, because red is the colour the beast feared the most.
From then on, the tradition of observing the conquest of Nian is carried on from generation to generation. The term Guo Nian, which may mean Survive the Nian, becomes today “Celebrate the (New) Year” as the word “guo” in Chinese means both “pass over” and “observe”.
The custom of putting up red paper and firing fire-crackers to scare away Nian should it have a chance to run loose is still around.
However, people today have long forgotten why they are doing all this, except that they feel the colour and the sound add to the excitement of the celebration.
The Chinese New Year has a great history and is similar to the Western New Year in that it is rich in tradition, folklore and rituals with everyone buying presents, decorations, food and clothing and it has been said that it is a combination of Christmas and New Year and the American Thanksgiving.
The origin of Chinese New Year is centuries old and preparations begin a month before the actual date somewhat similar to the build up to Christmas.
Even though the climax of the Chinese New Year, Nian, lasts only two or three days including New Year’s Eve, the New Year season extends from the mid-12th month of the previous Chinese calendar year to the middle of the first month of the New Year. A month from the New Year, it is a good time for business.
People will pour out their money to buy presents, decoration material, food and clothing while many travellers take their days off around the New Year to rush back home for a family reunion from all parts of the country.
Days before the New Year, every family is busy giving its house a thorough cleaning, hoping to sweep away all the ill-fortune there may have been in the family to make way for the wishful incoming good luck.
People also give their doors and window-panes a new paint job, usually red, and decorate the doors and windows with paper-cuts and couplets with the very popular theme of “happiness”, “wealth”, “longevity” and “satisfactory marriage with more children”.
Paintings of the same theme are put up in the house on top of the newly mounted wall paper. The Eve of the New Year is very carefully observed. Supper is a feast, with all members coming together. One of the most popular courses is jiaozi, dumplings boiled in water. Jiaozi in Chinese literally means “sleep together and have sons”, a long-lost good wish for a family.
After dinner, it is time for the whole family to sit up for the night while having fun playing cards or board games or watching TV programs dedicated to the occasion. Every light is supposed to be kept on the whole night.
At midnight, the sky will be lit up by fireworks and firecrackers as the people’s excitement reaches its zenith. Very early the next morning, children greet their parents and receive their presents in terms of cash wrapped up in red paper packages.
Then, the family start out to say greetings from door to door, first their relatives and then their neighbours.
It is a great time for reconciliation. Old grudges are very easily cast away during the greetings. The air is permeated with warmth and friendliness. During and several days following New Year’s Day, people visit each other and exchange gifts.
The Lantern Festival marks the end of the New Year season and afterwards life becomes the daily routine once again.
Customs of observing the New Year vary from place to place, considering that China is a big country not only geographically, but also demographically and ethnically. Yet, the spirit of the diverse celebrations is the same: a wish of peace and happiness for family and friends.