History of the Chinese New Year
According to experts, the Chinese Lunar New Year is the longest chronological record in history, dating from 2600BC, when Emperor Huang Ti introduced the first cycle of the zodiac. Unlike the Gregorian calendar, the start of the Chinese Lunar Calendar can fall anywhere between late January and the middle of February. A complete cycle takes 60 years and is made up of five cycles of 12 years each. Because of this, Chinese New Year Day changes each year, as it falls on the first day of the lunar calendar.
Chinese New Year is also known as the Spring Festival because springtime is a season of renewal, when new life springs forth after the cold and passiveness of winter. Similarly, the Chinese New Year is a time of fresh beginning.Preparations
In the past, the 20th day of the 12th Moon is set aside for the annual house cleaning, where the house from top to bottom must be swept and cleaned with bamboo leaves. Nowadays, most people clean their houses on any weekend that is available. The vacuum cleaner has made it easier to clean houses instead of using bamboo leaves which is difficult to find in urban areas. Some people even repaint the house and put up new curtains then decorate the main hall with red lanterns, banners and plastic or paper firecrackers. An auspicious red banner bearing wishes of wealth and prosperity is hung over the front door. Propitious sounding couplets like "peace on your coming and going" and "big prosperity coming in a big way" is hung everywhere.
The weeks leading up to the new year celebrations is a time of shopping frenzy, for new clothes and shoes, new year goodies like mandarin oranges, tarts and candies and foodstuff as it is believed that there must be a lot of food in the house to ensure the occupants do not go hungry during the coming year. Almost everyone will have their hair cut or restyled in order to look their best as it is believed that appearance during New Year's Day will set precedent for the rest of the year. Wherever possible all debts must be paid.
It is important that all immediate members of the family be together during this time. As some live far away, the journey home begins a few days before Chinese New Year. The New Year festivities start with the reunion dinner or feast on the eve. The food served must include items that signify good fortune, prosperity and happiness. When my grandparents were alive the dinner will consist of steamed fish, chicken curry, sweet and sour prawns, braised pork with sea cucumber and mushroom, mixed vegetables and 2 types of soup.
The Chinese love for puns and homonyms manifest in the things they choose to eat and display.
Pineapple (wong lai in Cantonese) sounds like good fortune is coming.
Leeks (suan in Mandarin) sound like counting. The Chinese love counting money so there must be plenty of leeks to signify lots of money.
Fish (he in Cantonese) sounds like laughter.
Prawns (ha in Cantonese) sounds like laughter and if coupled with fish it will sound like hehe haha. This is to ensure lots of laughter in the house during the new year.
Sea cucumber (h oi sum in Cantonese) pronounced with a higher tone sounds like “happiness”.
Oysters (ho see), for example, take on special significance because its Chinese name sounds like “good event”.
The hair-like weed fatt choy is consumed in large quantities because its name sounds like “luck and prosperity” in Cantonese.
Of course, nien gao also sounds like “year high” and recalls the adage nien nien gao sheng (“raising oneself in each coming year”).
Candied melon signify growth and good health
Red melon seeds signify joy and sincerity
Lotus seeds signify lots of offspring
Lychee nuts signify family togetherness
Tangerines signify abundant happiness
Peanuts signify long life
Coconut signify togetherness
Sesame seeds signify fertility and are sprinkled over goodies.
After the reunion feast, there is the last minute frenzy to clean the house because at the stroke of midnight sweeping and dusting is not allowed as it is believed that if you sweep the dirt out over the threshold, you will sweep a family member away. Also, to sweep the dust and dirt out of your house by the front entrance is to sweep away the good fortune of the family. After New Year's Day, the floors may be swept but it must begin at the door. The dust and rubbish are swept to the middle of the parlor, then placed in the corners and not taken or thrown out until the fifth day. At no time should the rubbish in the corners be trampled upon. Thank goodness for the vacuum cleaner so we now keep the rubbish in it instead of the corners.
Children are encouraged to stay up all night in adherence to shou sui, a practice which is believed to bring one's parents longevity. At the stroke of midnight, the New Year is ushered in with a lot of noise and prayers to welcome back the gods. Since firecrackers and fireworks are prohibited, the requisite din to herald the New Year comes from playing recorded sounds of exploding firecrackers and Chinese New Year songs. Every door and window in the house is opened to let the old year out and for the New Year to come in.The meaning of the 15 days of the Chinese New Year.
The first day of the Lunar New Year is "the welcoming of the gods of the heavens and earth." Many people abstain from meat on the first day of the new year because it is believed that this will ensure long and happy lives for them. It is also customary for married couples to give children and unmarried adults money inserted in red packets known as ang pow, as a gesture to mean that the recipient will enjoy a fruitful and wealthy life.
On the second day, the Chinese pray to their ancestors as well as to all the gods. They are extra kind to dogs and feed them well as it is believed that the second day is the birthday of all dogs.
The third and fourth days are for the sons-in-laws to pay respect to their parents-in-law.
The fifth day is for welcoming the Gods of Wealth and Prosperity as it is believed that they come down from the heavens on this day. Most businesses reopen on this day with prayers and setting off firecrackers as they believe it will bring them prosperity and good fortune for their business. No one visits families and friends on the fifth day because it will bring both parties bad luck.
On the sixth to the tenth day, the Chinese visit their relatives and friends freely. They also visit the temples to pray for good fortune and health.
The seventh day of CNY is considered the birthday of all human beings. Noodles are eaten to promote longevity and raw fish for success. The Cantonese community partakes in a dish called yee sang, a simple mixture of thin slices of raw fish, shredded vegetables, herbs and sauces. All the ingredients for the dish are arranged on a large platter which would then be tossed and mixed by all at the table, while saying out loud the word loh hei, which means liveliness, prosperity and longevity. The higher the yee sang is tossed the more prosperity for the coming year.
On the night of the eighth day, the Hokkien community may have another family reunion dinner and at midnight they pray to Tian Gong, the God of Heaven also known as the Jade Emperor.
The ninth day is the birthday of the Jade Emperor. Breakfast consists of hard boiled eggs and long life noodles soup. It is not allowed to hang clothes out to dry on this day.
The tenth through the twelfth are days that friends and relatives should be invited for dinner.
After so much rich food, on the thirteenth day you should have simple rice congee and pickled mustard greens (choi sum) to cleanse the system.
The fifteenth day of the New Year is known as The Festival of Lanterns and marks the end of the Chinese New Year celebrations. It is called Chap Goh Meh by the Hokkiens and is often regarded as the Chinese Valentine's day. It is believed that maidens would attract good husbands if they throw oranges into the river. In Penang, the Hokkien community commemorates this day with the Chingay parade where stilt walkers, lion and dragon dancers, and acrobats parade along the busy streets of Georgetown to the beat of gongs, drums and cymbals.
While many Chinese people today may not believe in these do's and don'ts, these traditions and customs are still practiced. These traditions and customs are kept because most families realize that it is these very traditions, whether believed or not, that provide continuity with the past and provide the family with an identity.