Happy (Chinese) New Year!

Nowhere is the passion for living expressed more exuberantly than during the jovial Chinese New Year celebrations, which are also held in many other countries in the world. (This year, the moveable feast begins Feb. 19.) In China, the New Year is celebrated with all the traditional festivity – fireworks and feasts as well as lion and dragon dances that mark it as the largest and loudest festival of the year.

I was initiated into the evocative symbolism and subtleties of Chinese New Year while living as a student in Nanking, China, when it was Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist capital, and later Hong Kong, when it was still a British crown colony. My husband, Seymour Topping, and I participated enthusiastically in the frantic preparations that begin 15 days before Chinese New Year actually arrives. We joined in the crush and chaos at the flower fairs and markets and witnessed firsthand the excitement and sense of abandon the Chinese have for their festivals. The overpowering sensation is one of joie de vivre. And it is contagious. Even though both Hong Kong and China have changed governments, the ancient tradition still goes on.

It is impossible to compare Chinese New Year with Christmas or with New Year in the Western world. To the Chinese, their New Year means much more. It is a time for settling debts, reappraisals, good resolutions, worshipping ancestors, family reunions, preparing special feasts and – appropriately enough among the people who invented gunpowder – for noisy firecrackers and spectacular fireworks.

It is the only time of year the Chinese voluntarily close their shops. This may the best indication of the seriousness with which the Chinese regard New Year for they are an exceptionally business-conscious people.

During Chinese New Year, the clock stops and the time machine winds back to ancient rituals and customs. Some of the outward manifestations have changed, but the essential elements of these traditions – a combination of Buddhism, Taoism and folk religion – still exert a spellbinding force on millions of Chinese. Whether in China, Singapore, London, Vancouver, San Francisco or New York City, this most important of all Chinese festivals is celebrated in basically the same way.

With indefatigable zest, the Chinese continue the festivities for days, the length being determined by the family’s wealth. About a week before the New Year, the preparations reach fever pitch. Strings of firecrackers 20 to 30 feet long are hung from third-floor balconies to be detonated when the time is ripe. Amid the cooking and cleaning, the women must find time to bargain for suitable branches of plum, peach and bell blossoms at the flower markets because tradition insists that the blossoms bloom exactly on New Year’s Day if the family is to prosper. Some families will pay hundreds of dollars for the perfect promising branch. Artificial blossoms are frowned upon. China’s tenements and homes are hung with red and gold streamers, the colors of luck and prosperity. The business districts are gaily decorated with peach blossoms. People flock to the department stores, open-air stalls and food markets from early morning until late at night. Paper shops are busy producing scrolls with auspicious slogans and couplets written in old-style characters to adorn homes and shops – “Success Affairs,” “Ten Thousand Generations and Long Duration,” and, most popular, “Kung Hei Fat Choy” in Cantonese.

The 13-month lunar calendar, said to have existed for more than 4,000 years, is the method used to calculate Chinese holidays. Consequently, Chinese New Year by the Western calendar can fall as early as Jan. 21 or as late as Feb. 21. The ancient Chinese zodiac of the 12-year cycle of animals still identifies the year. The characteristics of these animals are quite different from Western attributes. For example, the rat is a symbol of abundance, because a rat would hardly inhabit a poor home with lousy food. The snake, which disturbed the bliss of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, has curative powers to the Chinese.

The pig is an auspicious symbol, as are the dragon and the lion. Ferocious-looking lion and dragon dancers in full costume, accompanied by drums and cymbals, wind their way through the streets, temples and restaurants.

On New Year’s Eve, the shops close and everyone goes to their ancestral home to celebrate with family. No outsiders are invited to the New Year’s feast. Old quarrels must be forgotten. In more traditional homes, the family joins in the ancient rites of honoring ancestors and family deities. Children are given small gifts of “lucky money” wrapped in red paper. Mahjong, dice, cards, dominoes and other forms of home gambling are popular, for what other way is there to test the effect of New Year’s good luck?  Many of these time-honored ceremonies, though, are fading in The People’s Republic, and in many homes television provides New Year’s entertainment with its Cantonese and Mandarin films and operas.

On the last night of the 12th moon, no one goes to bed. Families gather, often in ceremonial garments, to take leave of the old year and share 10-course dinners lasting several hours. The fare is exotic. The foods in themselves aren’t symbolic, but the character ideograph of the food or the sound of the word means something appropriate for the holiday. Absolutely essential are sweet lotus seeds and melon seeds. Lotus is a play on the word meaning “continuous children” and women eat these in hope of  “a full quiver of sons.” Oysters mean prosperity; clams mean promotion; fish means plenty; chickens mean life. Vegetables are also selected for their meaning – mushrooms, success; seaweed, prosperity; and bean vermicelli, a play on the word for “long life.”

It is an old Chinese custom to have household gods. These deities look after members of the family and intercede on their behalf in the court of heaven presided over by the August Emperor of Jade. The beginning of New Year is marked by the departure of the Kitchen God, who is dispatched to heaven with fanfare, from his temple above the stove, to report on the family. He has finished the important role of the old year of watching over the family, distributing riches and deciding the length of life of each member. A new Kitchen God is welcomed home and a new effigy is placed above the stove.

On the fifth day after New Year’s Day, shops reopen and a feast is held in honor of the God of Merchants. Tradition appeased, the Chinese return to work satisfied that nothing more can be done to secure a prosperous year.

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