Xin nian kuai le! Happy New Year! 2009 is the year of the ox. The ox is the second of twelve animals in the Chinese horoscope. Sunday was New Year's Eve and the Shanghainese started it with a bang. The fireworks started around 6:30pm and did not end until 2 or 3 in the morning. From a rooftop vantage point in our small section of Shanghai we counted over 30 firework displays. For my friends who were observing from the city center, that number was over 100. It was an impressive sight.
Celebrating the new year is much more than just fireworks. It began with a legend. Thousands of years ago, a beast called Nian, or Year, would come the first day of the New Year. He would devour livestock, crops, and people, especially children. In order to protect themselves, the villagers would place food in front of their doors at the beginning of each year. Nian was appeased by the offering of food and did not attack the village. Once, when Nian was about to attack a village, he was frightened away by a child wearing red clothing. The villagers realized Nian was afraid of the color red. Each year after that, the villagers would hang red lanterns and red scrolls on the windows and doors. They also used firecrackers to frighten Nian away. Eventually, Nian was captured by a Taoist monk.
It is interesting to see how the Chinese people still carry on the traditions began in the legend of Nian. Red lanterns and decorations are everywhere. People hang red scrolls in their windows and on their doors. Each scroll has a wish or desire for the upcoming year. Peace, friendship, luck, prosperity, and health are all common. A red diamond with the word fu, or auspiciousness, is the most common of these. It is hung on the doors or windows upside down which symbolizes the arrival of luck, happiness, and prosperity. Two of the children I tutor made scrolls and a fu diamond for me. They are hanging on my door to welcome the new year.
In addition to the New Year celebrations the Chinese celebrate the Spring Festival. The Spring Festival is a time to gather together as a family. The days before the Spring Festival is a time of preparation. The house is cleaned which gets rid of the bad luck and makes the home ready to receive good for the coming year. New clothes are purchased, haircuts are received, flowers are purchased, and decorations are hung.
On New Year's Eve families gather together for dinner. Fish is one of the traditional foods prepared for this dinner. Some families follow the tradition of leaving some of the fish which is stored overnight. The remaining fish symbolizes having abundance in the coming year. It is also customary to eat foods that are round. The round shape symbolizes wealth. Dumplings, or jiaozi, is one common dish. Mandarin oranges are also consumed in great quantity during this time of year. They are also given as gifts. Long, uncut noodles are also eaten. The noodles represent longevity and long life.
Gifts are also given. Red envelopes, or hong bao, are given by older family members to children or young single family members. The hong bao almost always contain money. The amount of money in the envelopes should be in even numbers. It is common to give amounts with an 8 or a 6. Both of these numbers are considered lucky. It is also custom for people to give hong bao to those in their employ. For example, if you have a housekeeper, an ayi, she should be given a hong bao which is equivalent to one month's salary.
Celebrations for the Chinese New Year differ from region to region. In mainland China, for example, the celebration of traditions has been limited. Here, you will see the decorations and fireworks but not the parades and other common festivities. For a more traditional Chinese New Year celebration one would have to go to Taiwan, Singapore, or Malaysia.
We were able to find a group performing dragon and lion dances. The dragon dance is performed by a team of people carrying a dragon on poles. The dance is meant to mimic the movements of the dragon and demonstrate its power and dignity. The lion dance of northern China is performed
with two lions.
The celebration of the Chinese New Year lasts 15 days. It culminates with the Lantern Festival held on the evening of the 15th day when people light lanterns and parade through the streets.
May your new year be prosperous. Gong xi fa cai!
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