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The traditions of Chinese New Year

Posted: February 13, 2010 10:12 p.m.
Updated: February 14, 2010 4:55 a.m.
When one hears Chinese new year, it refers to Chinese Lunar New Year, heralded by the Spring Festival, which is marked by the second new moon after the winter solstice, usually falling somewhere between late January and early February. This year the Chinese new year falls on Feb. 14 (coincidentally, Valentine's Day).

The celebration of the Chinese lunar new year has the longest chronological record in history, dating from 2600 B.C. when the Emperor Huang Ti introduced the first cycle of the zodiac. The calendar is based on the movements of the moon, with each month beginning at the new moon. Because the phases of the moon do not match the solar year, the Chinese new year falls on a different date each year.

Since ancient time, people started to observe the moon and created many beautiful legends about the moon.

The most famous and popular one is the legend of Chang'e. She, as it is said, used to be the wife of Hou Yi, who was a famous archer and hero. Once upon a time, there were nine Suns living in the sky, one of which came out to work for one day in order to radiate the light and heat necessary for the biological species on the Earth. But one day all of them came out together in the sky and led to a drought for the Earth.

Hou Yi shot down eight Suns and therefore saved all the species and the earth. As his reward, the heavenly queen mother gave Hou Yi and his wife Chang'e the "Elixir of Immortality."

Different stories recount different reasons for Chang'e's actions but every recounting of the myth has Chang'e drinking all of the elixir by herself. Her body then became light and finally flew to the moon. Now, on a cloudless night, many people can observe it seems beautiful Chang'e is still sitting on the moon.

Another legend related to the Chinese new year is the Chinese Zodiac. The Chinese zodiac is named for the 12 animals that according to Buddhist tradition are the ones that responded when the Buddha called to them to hear him preach the Dharma, or Buddhist law. They arrived in the order of the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, ram, monkey, rooster, dog and boar. The year of the ox is just coming to an end and we will enter the year of the tiger.

It's believed that people born in this year are natural leaders. The tiger is a very changeable and adaptable person, with a powerful natural ability that is often in great danger of being abused. They are either powerful leaders or rebels.

Like Christmas in the West, in China everyone living away from home goes back for the spring festival, making the time around lunar new year the busiest time of year for transportation systems. The Eve of the Spring Festival is especially important, and all family members eat together, with a more luxurious meal than usual. Chicken, fish, and bean curd are not to be left out, for in Chinese, their pronunciations, respectively "ji", "yu," and "doufu," mean auspiciousness, abundance and richness. In the Chinese language, there are many homophones - words that sound alike, but with different meanings. When a word sounds like a good word, it also takes on a good connotation - or sometimes, a bad meaning if it sounds like another bad word.

To celebrate the Chinese new year, people will decorate their homes and put up poems on the doors in Chinese calligraphy in black ink on red paper. The couplets may be about hope for the future, or prosperity in the New year. People will also do Chinese dragon and lion dances and play drums and gongs in the street to celebrate.

The burning of long strings of firecrackers and fireworks accompanies the eve of the new year and people celebrate each day of New year holiday until the 15th day of the first lunar month.

People don't sleep throughout new year's night; they keep all the lights on and play different kinds of activities including poker and mah-jong as they wait for the coming new year.

There is a very interesting legend about these customs:

In ancient times, there was a ferocious and carnivorous beast named Nian. Nian lived at the bottom of the sea all year, but when the Chinese new year's eve came, Nian would leave the sea, approach villages, eat livestock and hurt human beings. Therefore, every year when the new year's eve was getting closer, people all fled to tall mountains to prevent from being hurt by Nian.

One year, when people were busy fleeing to the mountains, an elder came to the village. He told an old lady that if she allowed him to live at her house for a night, he would drive the ferocious beast Nian away. But no one believed him. The old lady tried to persuade him to hide himself in the mountains. But the old man insisted on staying in the village. When Nian entered the village to do bad deeds, all of a sudden it was badly frightened by loud sounds from firecrackers. Meanwhile, he saw the red couplets on the door of a house and that candles in the house were still lit. Nian was so scared that it ran away. It turned out that firecrackers, light and the red color were what scared Nian most.

The second day, when the villagers came back, they found that nothing was damaged. Then they figured out the old man was an immortal being. Meanwhile they now knew the three treasures that could drive Nian away.

People survived, celebrated and congratulated each other on the next day. Since then, every new year's eve, people all post red couplets on their doors, ignite firecrackers and keep their candles lit the entire night. This custom quickly spread and the new year became the most important traditional Chinese holiday. People also use lanterns (with lighted candles inside) and drums to scare Nian.

The most important activity in the new year is to worship the Jade Emperor with flowers and fruit without animal sacrifices (top ranking gods are vegetarian) in the early morning to give thanks for the gracious protection from the god of heaven in the past year and pray for a safe, smooth and lucky coming year.

Chinese new year is celebrated with big family gatherings, gift giving, the eating of symbolic foods - all focused on bringing good luck for the New Year and celebrating the coming of Spring, it is really a festival with the hope of good fortune.

Celebrated internationally in areas with large populations of ethnic Chinese, the Chinese new year is considered to be the most important holiday for the Chinese as well for the Mongolians, Koreans, the Miao and the Vietnamese, who were influenced by Chinese culture in terms of religious and philosophical worldview, language and culture.

Xiao Wang is a resident of the Santa Clarita Valley.


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