A Legend for Chinese New Year

The origin of the Chinese New Year Festival can be traced back thousands of years through a continually evolving series of colorful legends and traditions. According to one of the most famous legends, in ancient China there lived a monster named Year [isn’t that a weird coincidence?] with a horn on the who was extremely ferocious. Year lived deep at the bottom of the sea year round but came on land on New Year’s Eve to devour the cattle and ruin people’s lives.

On that day, people would flee their villages, bringing along the old and the young, in order to avoid calamity. On the day long and long ago, the people of Peach Blossom Village were preparing to take flight when an old beggar appeared in the village. With a stick in his hand and a bag hanging upon his arm, he had eyes twinkling like stars and a graceful beard as white as silver. Hardly anyone even noticed the old man as, seized with panic, they were closing windows and locking doors, packing and driving the cattle and sheep into the mountains.

An old woman living at the east end of the village gave the old man some food and advised him to flee to the mountains to avoid Year, but the old man stroked his beard and said with a smile, “If you allow me to stay at your home for the night, I’ll drive away this monster.”

The old woman was surprised to hear this. She looked at him disbelievingly but did notice that the old man had a bearing out of the ordinary. She continued to persuade him to flee. Yet,  he only smiled and made no reply. Finally, the old woman fled her home, leaving the old man there.

Around midnight Year rushed into the village. He found the atmosphere quite different from that of the previous year. For example, the house of the old woman at the east end of the village was brilliantly illuminated, with bright red paper stuck on the doors. Greatly shocked, the monster gave a strange loud cry and stared angrily at the house for a moment. Then, howling furiously, he pounced on the door when, all of a sudden, exploding sounds of bang-bong came from within. Trembling all over, the monster withdrew.

It turned out that the red color, flame and explosions were three things Year feared the most. When the door of the grandmother’s house was thrown open and an old man in a red robe burst out laughing in the courtyard, the monster was scared out of his wits and fled helter-skelter.

The next day was the 1st of the first lunar month. When people came back home they found everything safe and sound, though the old man was nowhere to be seen. The old woman remembered him and told the villagers about the old beggar’s promise, so the villagers swarmed into her house only to find that the doors were struck with red paper, the embers of a bamboo fire were still making exploding noises in the courtyard and a few candles were still glowing in the room…

The story spread far and wide and the people concluded  that the old beggar was surely the celestial being who came to expel the calamities and bless the people; red paper, red cloth, red candles and exploding firecrackers were THE magic weapons to drive out the monster.

To celebrate their auspicious good fortune, the villagers put on their best clothes and new hats and went, one after another, to well-wish their relatives and friends.

Since then, on New Year’s Eve, families post couplets written on red paper, blow up firecrackers, keep their houses brilliantly illuminated, and stay up late into the night. Early in the morning of the 1st of the first lunar month, they go visit friends and relations, bringing wishes for happiness and prosperity for the new year.

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