As pussy willows and plum blossoms burst forth from winter-worn branches, a mounting spirit of merriment descends on the Chinese community the world over.
Spring heralds the Chinese New Year, also known as the Spring festival, which falls on the first day of the first lunar month of the year.
Thousands of years ago, when China was mainly an agricultural society, Spring’s shedding of frost marked the advent of a new sowing season and a hope for the same reaping luck in the new year.
Today, although modern society has eroded the agricultural importance of the season, ethnic Chinese continue to celebrate the ancient significance of Spring - of joy, new beginnings, and reunion.
The most important festival in the Chinese calendar, Chinese New Year is celebrated over 15 days.
Red and gold are the colours du jour, and upbeat festive music finds its way into every store. Bustling street markets stocked with merchandise of every description, from fashion, to home wares, to decorations and food stuff, are the destination of choice for shoppers who have taken time off work to soak in the atmosphere and procure items in preparation of the New Year.
The lead-up to the festival can take as long as a month for the number of things that needs to be done. Spring cleaning is vital, and the adage “out with the old, in with the new” never rang so true.
In the spirit of starting a new year afresh, old household items are discarded and new ones are bought in their place. Cleaning is said to wash away the bad luck of the preceding year and prepares the home to receive the good luck of the coming year.
The house must be spick and span, as the use of brooms and other cleaning tools is verboten during the New Year for the belief that luck would be swept away if the floors are swept (particularly bad is sweeping out the door – you are seen as sweeping luck right out of your home).
Decking out the house in red invites luck, as does pinning Chinese couplets on the walls and door frames. Stocking the home with food is essential to signify enough food to last throughout the year, and as distributing sweets is believed to sweeten one’s year, candies, sweetmeats, and cookies must await visiting guests.
Of course, mandarins, homophonic to the Cantonese word for ‘gold’ must be bought and a pair presented at every home one visits.
New Year’s Eve is imbued with meaning. Dinner is a time for reunion where family members sit down to an elaborate symbolic feast that boasts more food than can be finished.
Fish is a must-have, as it signifies abundance throughout the year. Dried oysters and prawns are also featured as symbols for all things good and happiness. The atmosphere on Chinese New Year’s Eve must be kept lively and happy as it is believed the mood on that day will carry throughout the year.
The eve is also known as “Chu Xi”, which literally translates to “the banishment of night” – and the welcoming of a new dawn. Children are encouraged to stay up as late as they can on this night, in a customary act believed to safeguard the longevity of their parents’ lives. This tradition is perhaps the birthplace of mahjong all-nighters, where the shuffling clack of plastic tiles resonates from every other home till the wee hours of morning.
On New Year’s Day, the rhythmic drumbeats of a lion dance are usually what one wakes up to. Lion dances will be a regular sight throughout the festivities as they are believed to evict bad luck for businesses and homes
The first day is reserved for visiting the most senior family members, such as parents, grandparents or great-grandparents on the married man’s side of the family. Some families partake in a vegetarian breakfast believing that it would bring a long life.
Most times, families eat leftovers from the eve’s feast for breakfast, because it is believed that using knives and sharp objects on New Year would cut up one’s luck. Mourning colours of black and white are avoided when one dresses up to go visiting or to receive guests.
Visitors arrive as early as ten in the morning, and red packets filled with brand new notes are given to children and unwed adults by married folk for good luck.
The second day is for married daughters to visit their parents and relatives. If a woman’s parents have passed on, she will visit her eldest brother’s home or stay at home. After the festivities of the first two days, the third day of the New Year is for staying home.
Believed to be Red Dog (The God of Anger) Day, going out on this day is said to find tempers flaring, so there’s an excuse to stay home and recuperate. This is the day when the trash, which has accumulated since New Year’s Eve, can be finally taken out and the house cleaned.
While the other days are steeped in agricultural and religious traditions that are still observed in some families, such as welcoming the Kitchen God home on the fourth day, most Chinese only observe the most significant days.
One of these is the seventh day, or Ren Ri, believed to be when humans were created. This is a predominantly Cantonese celebration but has been adopted by all dialect groups in Singapore and Malaysia. As it is everybody’s birthday, a celebration feast comprising a dish of yu sheng, a seven ingredient salad that features raw fish, is eaten with extended family members.
On the stroke of midnight on the eighth day, the Hokkiens celebrate the birth of the Jade Emperor, or Tian Gong, with a thanksgiving offering of sugarcane, paper gold taels, incense, fruit and other foods.
On the fifteenth day, known as Yuan Xiao Jie or Chap Gor Mei, is the Chinese Valentine’s Day. This is the night when the full moon makes its first appearance in the year, so couples would sit out and moon gaze.
It is traditionally a time for family reunion as it is the last day of the New Year. Some families eat glutinous rice balls, or tang yuan, to symbolize completeness, family unity and happiness.
By the fifteenth day, the Chinese New Year celebrations would have tailed off into a quiet retrospect.
After the last feast has been consumed and the decorations taken down, what remains is a thankfulness for the renewal of family ties and friendships, over specialty food that is unique to this time of year.