Of all the traditional Chinese festivals, the new Year was perhaps the most elaborate, colourful, and important. This was a time for the Chinese to congratulate each other and themselves on having passed through another year, a time to finish out the old, and to welcome in the new year. Common expressions heard at this time are: GUONIAN to have made it through the old year, and BAINIAN to congratulate the new year.
Turning Over a New Leaf
The Chinese New year is celebrated on the first day of the First Moon of the lunar calendar. The corresponding date in the solar calendar varies from as early as January 21st to as late as February 19th. Chinese New Year, as the Western new Year, signified turning over a new leaf. Socially, it was a time for family reunions, and for visiting friends and relatives. This holiday, more than any other Chinese holiday, stressed the importance of family ties. The Chinese New year’s Eve dinner gathering was among the most important family occasions of the year.
Sweeping of the Grounds
Preparations for the Chinese New Year in old China started well in advance of the New Year’s Day. The 20th of the Twelfth Moon was set aside for the annual housecleaning, or the “sweeping of the grounds“. Every corner of the house must be swept and cleaned in preparation for the new year. SpringCouplets, written in black ink on large vertical scrolls of red paper, were put on the walls or on the sides of the gate-ways. These couplets, short poems written in Classical Chinese, were expressions of good wishes for the family in the coming year. In addition, symbolic flowers and fruits were used to decorate the house, and colorful new year pictures (NIAN HUA) were placed on the walls (for more descriptions of the symbolism of the flowers and fruits.
On the last day of the old year, everyone was busy either in preparing food for the next two days, or in going to the barbers and getting tidied up for the New Year’s Day. Tradition stipulated that all food be pre-pared before the New Year’s Day, so that all sharp instruments, such as knives and scissors, could be put away to avoid cutting the “luck” of the New Year. The kitchen and well were not to be disturbed on the first day of the Year.
The New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day celebrations were strickly family affairs. All members of the family would gather for the important family meal on the evening of the New year’s Eve. Even if a family member could not attend, an empty seat would be kept to symbolize that person’s presence at the banquet. At midnight following the banquet, the younger members of the family would bow and pay their respects to their parents and elders.
On New Year’s Day, the children were given Red Lai-See Envelopes , good luck money wrapped in little red envelopes. On New Year’s day, everyone had on new clothes, and would put on his best behavior. It was considered improper to tell a lie, raise one’s voice, use indecent language, or break anything on the first day of the year.
Starting from the second day, people began going out to visit friends and relatives, taking with them gifts and Lai-See for the children. Visitors would be greeted with traditional New year delicacies, such as melon seeds, flowers, fruits, tray of togetherness, and NIANGAO, New Year cakes.