10 Chinese New Year Traditions
Gallop into the Year of the Horse by observing these special rites at a time when ancient traditions hold sway, dragons dance, lions leap and the sky is an aurora borealis of pyrotechnics. By Jim Algie
Chinese New Year is not only the largest mass movement of people in the world, with more than three billion trips predicted to be taken in China this year, it’s one of the globe’s most colorful, kinetic and clamorous celebrations.
Many of the rituals, like dragon dances, even the special foods eaten, such as spring rolls, are imbued with a magical meaning. In this list, we look at some of the most widely observed customs that frame 5,000 years of Chinese history, mythology, cuisine, spirituality, business and imperial reigns.
1. SEEING RED
The color scheme is red. For clothes, pennants, and cards this beautiful shade of scarlet is everywhere. The importance of red goes back millennia to a time when a monster of mythical proportions named Nian was menacing the countryside. He could only be repelled by loud noises and the color of blood. Since then it’s become the luckiest of shades.
2. TIME OF RENEWAL
CNY is also a time of renewal and a springboard to make a fresh start. That’s why it’s also called the Spring Festival. And that spirit of change and growth is evident in customs like wearing new clothes to start the year off right. In Chinese culture one can never underestimate the importance of “face” and showing off your status with expensive clothes and jewelry, which has made Chinese travelers the world’s top consumers of luxury goods.
3. DANCING WITH DRAGONS
This symbol of prosperity, of rain, wind and emperors, wends its way through the streets in serpentine fashion to the rhythm of pounding drums and crashing cymbals. The dragon is also believed to bring good luck to people, which is why they put money in his mouth. The longer the dragon, the more luck he leaves in his wake. In Thailand, the biggest dragon is in Nakhon Sawan, which also has the longest CNY festivities, from January 24 to February 4.
4. FIREWORKS GALORE
Since the Chinese invented gunpowder, they have become maestros at choreographing the most bedazzling pyrotechnic shows. CNY sees a mind-blowing, retina-expanding experience. The fireworks and firecrackers are also said to scare off any evil spirits lurking around. Hong Kong’s spellbinding parade, the Chinese New Year International Performance, is held on January 31 with a pyrotechnics show over Victoria Harbour the next evening.
5. WISH UPON A TREE
A local custom in Singapore that draws droves of people is the Chinatown Wishing Tree. Its roots go back to the hoary banyan tree of yore in the Lam Tsuen area of Hong Kong. The cities vary, but the game is the same. Tie your written wish to an orange (a Chinese symbol of longevity) and throw it at the banyan tree. If it catches on the branches and hangs there, your wish will come true.
The wishing tree in Singapore is based on a Hong Kong legend
6. CHARITABLE DEEDS
Another important aspect of the Spring Festival is doing good deeds, even leaving out food for “hungry ghosts,” or making donations to the unfortunate. At the Wishing Tree in Singapore, for instance, each orange costs S$2 dollars per toss. This charitable practice bears fruit for seniors as all profits are donated to the Kreta Ayer Seniors Activity Centre. The tree is at Chinatown Point on Bridge Road.
7. FOOD OMENS
Lavish feasts with family and friends are a staple of the season. But this sustenance has both substance and superstitious significance. The fried spring rolls are deemed auspicious because they look like gold bars. The seasonal fish dishes are supposed to augur a year of plenty, with plenty of prosperity, and an abundance of bliss, because you’re so prosperous. On the first day of the new year, some Chinese stick to a vegetarian diet, replete with dried bean curd, a harbinger of wealth and happiness, and lotus seeds in order to have many sons.
8. TEMPLE FAIRS
Throughout the Spring Festival, temple fairs explode with noise and color in many different Chinese communities, especially on the mainland, with all the folkloric arts of dance, music, calligraphy, and theater represented. One exemplary event is the Changdian Temple Fair in Beijing, held not far from Tian’anmen Square. A fabulous place to shop for arts and handicrafts, tea, foodstuffs and baubles, it runs from January 31 to February 4.
9. SHOWS OF ATHLETIC PROWESS
At these athletic fairs, held in public parks in China, you can show off both your brawn and brains, as martial arts mavens demonstrate their kicks, feints, ducks, and punches, ping pong players try to slam the competition, chess competitors go cranium to cranium, and arm-wrestlers take on all comers. Audience participation is encouraged.
10. LANTERN FESTIVAL
In reality there are many different rituals to celebrate the 15 days of the new year, emphasizing the importance of family and business, honoring deceased ancestors, offering prayers to the Jade Emperor who created the universe, and welcoming the God of Wealth into their homes on the fifth day.
Traditions may vary, but the climax on the 15th day, during a full moon, as the Lantern Festival brightens the night is cast in the same brilliant light. This year, poetically enough, the festival, which is also a sweethearts’ night out for Chinese couples, falls on Valentine’s Day of February 14th, as West and East enjoy a rare embrace.
Image courtesy of Hong Kong Tourism Board