Lunar New Year: Culture and traditions explained

Feb 6, 2017

As we delve deeper into the origins of the Chinese New Year, we discover that there is much more to the festival than collecting hongbao (red packets) and tossing yusheng (raw fish salad).

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Despite the adoption of the Gregorian calendar – along with its New Year on January 1 – by China since 1912, Chinese in their homeland, as well as its diaspora around the world, continue to celebrate the traditional Chinese New Year. Also commonly termed the Spring Festival, it’s observed from the first to the fifteenth day of the first lunar month of the Chinese calendar, usually between mid-January and mid-February, and remains the most important social holiday and cultural festival for ethnic Chinese everywhere.

How it began

The legend goes that there was once a terrifying monster called Nian who attacked villages every year towards the end of winter when prey was scarce. Storytellers each have their own version as to how Nian was conquered – one says a wise old man advised the villagers to beat drums, light firecrackers and hang red scrolls and banners on their doors to scare the beast away, as it was afraid of loud noises and the colour red.

Another variation tells of how a lion defeated Nian, so to protect themselves from the vengeful monster’s return, the villagers created a lion costume and scared it away by performing what has since evolved into the ritualistic lion dance we know today.

Whichever version one believes, on the anniversary of the lunar date of that victory, the Chinese mark the “passing of the Nian”, now synonymous with celebrating the Chinese New Year.

The big spring clean

The days leading up to the New Year sees Chinese families spring-cleaning their homes, often giving it a new coat of paint, before decorating it with items bearing auspicious symbolism. Apart from lanterns, sometimes in the shape of pineapples – the Chinese word for pineapple sounds like the term for “luck arrives”, red paper cutouts of the word fu (prosperity) or ji (riches), other popular choices involve depictions of one of the 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac for that particular year. The idea is to sweep and wash away all the negative energy of the past year and prepare their homes to receive good luck.

SEE ALSO: Why we eat pineapple tarts during Lunar New Year and the meanings behind other goodies

Feasting together

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One of the most important aspects of the festival takes place on the Eve of Chinese New Year, where families gather for reunion dinner. Not unlike Thanksgiving dinner observed in North America, it is all about being grateful for the safe passage of family members over the past year and the chance for those living or working away from home to spend time with loved ones.

Traditional dishes include ingredients such as a whole fish (the Chinese word for fish, yu, is a homophone for abundance), black sea moss (its Cantonese translation, fatt choy, sounds like gaining wealth) and some form of noodles (that represent longevity). Many modern families, however, have adopted using the steamboat as it makes for a great communal meal.

The liveliest moment of the dinner comes during the tossing (lo hei) of the yusheng (raw fish salad), when all family members grab a pair of chopsticks and toss the salad together while spouting auspicious sayings such as “Bu bu gao sheng” (Make steady progress),“Xin xiang shi cheng” (May your dreams come true) and “Yi fan feng shun” (May everything be smooth-sailing).

SEE ALSO: What’s the meaning of the Chinese New Year lion dance performance? A step-by-step visual guide

Dressing up and catching up

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The first day of Chinese New Year sees everyone dressed in new and vibrantly coloured outfits – red of course being the preferred colour, with black and white frowned upon due to their association with death. Younger generations pay respects to their elders, who in turn bestow good wishes and blessings of hongbao (red packets) – filled with varying amounts of cash in even numbers – upon them.

Relatives and friends visit one another’s homes over the first few days and exchange auspicious greetings such as “Xin nian kuai le” (Happy New Year), “Wan shi ru yi” (May all things go your way) and the popular “Gong xi fa cai” (Wishing you prosperity and wealth). Mandarin oranges are exchanged in pairs, as its Chinese name, ju, sounds like luck and its colour is as close as you can get to gold. If you’re invited to visit during the festival or to join in the reunion dinner, it’s good to bring a pair of Mandarin oranges to present to the host.

Then adults chat and children play, while enjoying delicious Chinese New Year goodies like pineapple tarts, love letters (egg rolls, which represent fertility and rebirth) and nian gao (glutinous rice cake; another auspicious homophone, this one meaning soaring to great heights in the New Year).

Celebrations around the world

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Visiting families on the first two days of Chinese New Year, which are gazetted public holidays in Singapore, is a common practice among Singaporeans. This year, with the first two days falling over the weekend, Monday is gazetted as a holiday and so, there is an additional day for locals to celebrate with families. An annual official light-up ceremony also takes place in the Chinatown district, with over 50 days for locals and tourists to check out the brightly lit street decorations, festive bazaar (above) and nightly stage shows. Another iconic annual event – River Hongbao – takes place down at Marina Bay, with a focus on gigantic lantern displays, cultural performances, traditional Chinese arts and the ever-popular fireworks.

SEE ALSO: How to celebrate Lunar New Year 2017 around the world

In China, millions of Chinese take part in what is famously known as the Spring Festival Travel Rush, the world’s largest annual human migration, in a bid to head home for the family reunion and take advantage of the fortnight-long holiday to travel. After Reunion Dinner, families gather round the TV to watch the Chinese New Year Gala telecast ‘live’ on CCTV, a four-and-a-half-hour-long variety show that culminates in a countdown and pyrotechnics at midnight.

San Francisco in the USA has been hosting a Chinese New Year Parade – touted as one of the top 10 parades in the world and the biggest celebration of its kind outside of Asia – since the Gold Rush era of the 1860s. Thousands of people flock to the city or tune in ‘live’ on TV to witness an endless procession of elaborate floats, including that of the newly crowned Miss Chinatown USA and her court, exploding firecrackers, as well as lion and dragon dances.

– BY MANDY LIM BEITLER

PHOTOS: SINGAPORE PRESS HOLDINGS LTD, 123RF.COM

This article was originally published on January 25, 2016.