Chinese New Year: Spring Festival and Lantern Festival

The Spring Festival falls on the 1st day of the 1st lunar month—this year on January 26th. Strictly speaking, the festival starts every year in the early days of the 12th lunar month and will last till the middle of the 1st lunar month of the next year. The most important days are Spring Festival Eve and the first three days.

Many customs accompany the Spring Festival. For example, on the 8th day of the 12th lunar month many families make a porridge from glutinous rice, millet, seeds, jujube berries, lotus seeds, beans, longan and gingko. The 23rd day of the 12th lunar month is called Preliminary Eve. At this time, people used to offer sacrifices to the kitchen God. Now however, most families just use their kitchens to make delicious food.

The next day, people begin preparing for the coming New Year. Store owners are busy then as everybody goes out to purchase necessities such as cooking oil, rice, flour, chicken, duck, fish, fruit, candies and nuts. What’s more, various decorations, new clothes and shoes for the children as well as gifts are on all the shopping lists. [I’ve heard that those whose ‘year’ it is – this year all the Oxen – buy red underwear, which they wear throughout ‘their’ year for good luck and prosperity. Certainly, there are always lots of red bras in the stores this time of year….

People give their homes, clothes, bedclothes and all their utensils a good “Spring cleaning,” then they decorate their front doors with Spring Festival couplets written on red paper and pictures of the God of doors and wealth to ward off evil spirits and welcome peace and abundance. The Chinese character fu (meaning blessing or happiness) is a must. This character can be pasted right-side-up or upside down, for in Chinese the “reversed fu” is homophonic with “fu comes”, both being pronounced as fu dao le. What’s more, two big red lanterns can be raised on either side of the front door. Red paper-cuttings are pasted on windows and bright paintings with auspicious meanings are hung on the walls.

On Spring Festival eve, it’s important that all family members eat dinner together. Dishes such as chicken, fish and bean curd cannot be excluded, for in Chinese, their pronunciations – respectively ji, yu and doufu – sound like auspiciousness, abundance and riches. According to custom, each family will stay up to see the New Year in.

Waking up on New Year, everybody dresses up. First they extend greetings to their parents. Then each child will get money as a New Year gift, wrapped up in red paper. People in northern China will eat jiaozi, or dumplings, for breakfast, because jiaozi sounds like “bidding farewell to the old and ushering in the new”. Also, the dumplings are shaped like the gold ingots of ancient China. So people eat them and wish for money and treasure. In southern China, people eat niangao (cakes made of glutinous rice flour) because, niangao sounds like “higher and higher, one year after another.”

The first five days after the Spring Festival are a good time for relatives, friends, and classmates as well as colleagues to exchange greetings, visits and gifts. In towns and villages, activities such as lion dancing, dragon lantern dancing, lantern festivals and temple fairs will be held for days. The Spring Festival then comes to an end when the Lantern Festival, which falls on the 15th day of the 1st lunar month, is finished.

The Lantern Festival’s most important activity is watching lanterns. It may sound a bit odd, but in the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220), an emperor heard that Buddhist monks would watch sarira, or the remains from the cremation of Buddha’s body, and light lanterns to worship Buddha on the 15th day of the 1st lunar month, so he ordered lanterns to be lit in the imperial palace and temples to show respect to Buddha on this day. Later, the Buddhist rite developed into a grand festival and its influence expanded from the Central Plains to the whole of China.

Today, lanterns of various shapes and sizes are hung in the streets and “guessing lantern riddles” is an essential part of the festival. Lantern owners write riddles on a piece of paper and post them on the lanterns. If visitors have solutions to the riddles, they can pull the paper out and go to the lantern owners to check their answer. If they are right, they will get a little gift. People eat yuanxiao, or rice dumplings, on this day, so it is also called the “Yuanxiao Festival.” Yuanxiao also has another name, tangyuan. These are small dumpling balls made of glutinous rice flour with rose petals, sesame, bean paste, jujube paste, walnut meat, dried fruit, sugar and edible oil as a filling. Tangyuan can be boiled, fried or steamed. What’s more, tangyuan in Chinese has a similar pronunciation with “tuanyuan”, meaning reunion. So people eat them to denote union, harmony and happiness for the family.

On the day of the festival, there may be dragon lantern dances, lion dances, land boat dances, yangge dances performed while others walk on stilts and beat drums. On the night, except for magnificent lanterns, fireworks form a beautiful scene. Most families spare some fireworks from the Spring Festival and let them off in the Lantern Festival. Some local governments will even organize a fireworks party. On the night when the first full moon enters the New Year, people become really intoxicated by the imposing fireworks and bright moon in the sky.

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