Chinese New Year Customs
Chinese New Year, known in China as the Spring Festival, is centuries old and traditionally, a fifteen day period in which to visit friends and family, honour ancestors and make offerings in order to be blessed with health, wealth and happiness in the new year. Often celebrated with parades, lion dances, live performances and, of course, firework displays, the final spectacle is the Lantern Festival.
The Lion Dance dispels evil and brings good luck. Performers are often martial artists or acrobats, and as evil dislikes loud noise, it is accompanied by music and firecrackers. The climax is 'Picking the Green', where vegetable leaves and a red packet tied to a piece of string are hung above a doorway. The Lion 'eats' the leaves and red packet in a symbolic act of blessing. A home or business fortunate enough to be visited by a performance, is said to have good luck for the rest of the year.
Small gifts are given when visiting friends and increasingly for weddings, but traditionally money is given inside red envelopes decorated with lucky symbols. At Chinese New Year, red packets are given to children and unmarried people, representing fortune in the coming year. The money can also be used to pay off debt, allowing a financial clean slate.
Door Gods are an ancient tradition dating back to the Tang Dynasty. The Emperor Taizong fell ill and dreamt that ghosts came for him, so his two top generals stood guard outside his bedroom door. The emperor had no more bad dreams, but concerned for his loyal generals, the emperor ordered that paintings of the two men be hung on the door instead. The tale soon spread and ordinary people made their own Door Gods for protection.
Welcoming the New Year and Expelling the Old
The whole house is cleaned and at the stroke of midnight on New Year's eve, all doors and windows are opened to allow the old year to leave. On New Year's day, there should be no sweeping out of the main door for fear of sweeping away good fortune, so dust is first swept into the middle of the room and then into a corner where it cannot be walked upon. All rubbish and dirt is then carried out of the house via the back door on day five.
Fifteen Days of Celebration
Flowers and Blossoms
Flowers have enormous symbolism and the Chinese language's endless opportunities for puns and word play are demonstrated in the flowers used. Living rooms are decorated with vases of blossoms, peach being the most auspicious. Arriving in spring, they symbolise life, growth and prosperity. Regarded as the strongest defence against evil, peach blossoms were once placed above main doors for protection, and peach blooming at New Year signifies a fortunate year ahead.
The peony is the 'Flower of Riches and Honour' and the emblem of love and affection, as well as being a symbol for feminine beauty. The bright red peony is particularly auspicious, bringing luck and good fortune. The use of Kumquats or Gam Gat Sue is a play on words. The word Gam rhymes with the Chinese word for gold, whilst Gat rhymes with the word for luck. The tiny green leaves of this plant symbolise wealth as the word Lu (green) rhymes with the Chinese word for wealth. Finally, the shape of the small orange is a symbol of unity and perfection.
Oranges and tangerines symbolise abundant happiness. Etiquette dictates that you must give them as a gift when visiting family or friends. Tangerines with leaves intact ensure that one's relationship with the other remains secure. For newlyweds, this represents the branching of the couple into a family with many children. Red melon seed is dyed red to symbolise joy, happiness, truth and sincerity. Lychee nut is for strong family relationships, coconut for togetherness, peanuts for long life and lotus seed to be blessed with many children. Finally, a candy tray with eight varieties of dried sweet fruit is arranged in either a circle or octagon and called 'The Tray of Togetherness'. There is a dazzling array of candy to start the New Year sweetly, each representing some kind of fortune.