To learn more about what really goes on in China, then and now, I decided to talk with Amy Zhang who runs our Nanjing office. Amy was kind enough to share with me her personal memories and experiences about the New Year and her candid sentiments on how this special tradition has changed.
The Spring Festival, the popular modern day term used for the holiday, is the most important festival for the Chinese people and the time when all family members get together, just like Christmas in the West. Everyone travels home for the holiday making this the busiest time for travel, overloading airports, rail stations and buses for close to half of a month.
The Spring Festival falls on the 1st day of the 1st lunar month and it's believed to have originated in the Shang Dynasty (1600 BC- 1100 BC) from the peoples' sacrifice to gods and ancestors at the end of an old year and the beginning of a new one. While the festival last fifteen days, the most important of these is New Year's Eve and the three days following. The country has a national holiday that lasts seven days and there is a mandatory closing of businesses and government during this time.
Many of the customs that accompany this holiday are still followed but others have weakened. Placing red decorations on doors and windows and lighting firecrackers originated as a way to scare off monsters. Today hanging red scrolls and red paper cut outs send messages of good luck, harmony, prosperity and peace for the year ahead. Firecrackers, the custom most often tied to the celebration, was banned sometime ago as officials took security, pollution and noise into consideration. They have been replaced by soundtracks, balloons being popped or most often hanging decorations that look like fireworks.
Prior to the festival, many families make laba porridge, a delicious porridge made with glutinous rice, millet, seeds of Job's tears, jujube berries, lotus seeds, beans, logan and gingko. There are eight ingredients in the porridge signifying family togetherness, safety, wealth and happiness.
Preliminary Eve, on the 23rd day of the 12th lunar month, families make delicious food to enjoy, but this used to be the time when the sacrifice to the kitchen god took place. This was when my grandmother would make a special cake called "hearth cake" and she would use a special sugar made of maltose and gingeli named "hearth sugar," this cake and sugar was used to symbolize feeding the god of hearth assuring more food for the family in the coming year.
"Seeing in the New Year" begins after that. This is a time when stores are bustling and everybody is out purchasing necessities for the upcoming celebration. They buy rice, flour, chicken, duck, fish, meat and fruits, candies and various nuts. They are also buying decorations for the house, shoes and clothing for the children, as well as gifts for friends, relatives and the elderly. In China red means "new" and "lucky" and many of the clothing and decorations purchased will be red.
Before the arrival of the New Year people clean their homes from top to bottom, inside and out. Once spotless, the decorating begins creating an atmosphere of rejoicing and festivity. All the door panels will be adorned with Spring Festival red scrolls with Chinese calligraphy expressing the home owners' wishes for a bright future and good luck for the New Year. Pictures of the god of wealth will also go up on front doors to ward off evil spirits and welcome peace and abundance.
The Chinese character "fu", meaning blessing or happiness, is a must. The character is displayed right side up or upside down. Upside down fu or reversed fu means "fu comes" so either way good wishes are articulated. Two big red lanterns are raised on both sides of the front door and red paper cuttings and bright colored New Year paintings with auspicious meanings are hung in windows and on walls.
People attach great importance to the Spring Festival Eve and families will eat a more luxurious than usual dinner together. Dishes with chicken (ji), fish (yu) and bean curd (doufu) must not be excluded from the meal because for the Chinese these mean auspiciousness, abundance and richness. In my family, the gatherings were held by my grandmother. My father would hang the pictures of the gods on the eve of the New Year while my grandmother baked flour cakes shaped like different animals.
Under my grandmother's direction, both my mother and father would prepare chicken, fish, fruit, dumplings and candy as an offering to the gods and my ancestors as a way of honoring them. The entire family would pray together humbling ourselves before pictures of both gods and ancestors where we had offered up the food. After praying, we began our celebratory meal together and when finished we would sit together chatting, drinking tea and watching TV.
More recently the Spring Festival Party is broadcasted on China Central Television (CCTV) and is essential entertainment for Chinese people both at home and abroad. Customarily each family will stay up to see the start of the New Year.
When I woke up on the day of the New Year I got dressed up in my new clothes and my first greeting of the day was to my parents. We always ate dumplings that day and all the children received gifts from parents and grandparents wrapped in red paper. Sometimes we would receive money in red envelopes. The eating and celebration continued with many great dinners that include regional dishes that were meaningful and delicious. These few days are spent having fun with relatives, friends, colleagues and classmates and we exchange the gifts that we have selected and chat leisurely.
The lively atmosphere not only fills every household, but permeates to streets and lanes. A series of activities such as lion dancing, dragon lantern dancing, lantern festivals and temple fairs are held. The Spring Festival then comes to an end when the Lantern Festival is finished.
My grandmother passed away many years ago and with her passing many of the rituals that I knew as a child also left us. Praying to our ancestors and the gods is not done in my family anymore as many of the younger generation do not remember how to celebrate the gods as it was once done.
The New Year celebration in China has become much less about the old ways and is more about consuming the days with shopping at the malls to buy different kinds of gifts and clothes. It's a pity that the important holiday traditions have become weak but I will always have wonderful memories of the past celebrations with my grandmother which someday I hope to pass on to my own family.