Sunday, February 5, 2012

Chinese New Year, A period full of traditions

Last week I experienced one of the most important Chinese holidays: Chinese New Year, also called Spring Festival or Lunar New Year.

I heard about the Chinese new year before, and before I experienced it, I thought it should be similar to our western new year, where you spend an evening (and night) with your family and celebrate the start of a fresh new year. You drink champagne, you eat (too) much, and when it is midnight, you congratulate everyone and start watching fireworks. For the rest there are not much traditions involved in the western world as far as I know from my own experience. Yes, maybe you go to your family on January 1st, and you may have some good intentions for the new year, but that's it, right? Nothing really special besides having a good time with your loved ones.

Fireworks in Hong Kong during the Chinese New Year
The Chinese new year however, involves much more than just a night of celebration. Besides being one of the longest holidays throughout the year, it involves a lot of traditions that we are not familiar with in the west.

First of all, every year, the Chinese new year falls on a different date, somewhere between January 21 and February 20. This is because it is based on the Chinese lunar calendar, a calendar whose dates are linked to the phases of the moon. Compared to our "normal" calendar, the Chinese calendar is about 11 days shorter and therefore one extra month is inserted every 3 years to keep the calendar in sync with the seasons.

According to a Chinese legend, the Chinese new year started by a mythical monster that would come on the first day of the new year to eat livestock, but also people and children from the villages. The people thought that if they prepared food for the beast, it would not eat them and their children. Also, the monster was scared of noise and red colours, so therefore the villagers hang red lanterns and red rolls on their windows by the time that the new year was starting, and used fireworks to scare him away.

Nowadays, the people are not afraid of the monster anymore, but you can still see the ancient tradition being applied. Everywhere you go, you will see that people will hang red lanterns near their house. They also put red scrolls of paper on their front door, which usually have Chinese characters like "good health, good fortune, happiness" written on it in big golden letters.

In the week before Chinese new year, most people will clean their house thoroughly, as it is believed that the cleaning will wash away all your bad luck, and you will have a good start in the new year. Also you are supposed to buy new clothes, shoes and cut your hair before the new year starts, as it will give you a good new start as well. (Don't buy any clothes or cut your hair in the first days after the Chinese new year, as it will bring you bad luck!)

When you walk through the street before New Year, you will hear a lot of firecrackers everywhere. Shop owners will light the fireworks before they close down their shop, to make sure they scare the beast and get good luck for the new year. It's really something you will hear for several days, throughout the city. Also families are doing that on their balconies, so watch where you are walking!

On the night of Chinese new year, all the families come together to have a big dinner together or light the fireworks. There are also a lot of firework shows organized by the government, which are usually much more impressive than their western new year counterparts in Asia. (I remember I was quite dissapointed seeing the 2012 New Year fireworks in Hong Kong. It lasted only 5 minutes, while the Chinese New Year fireworks lasted for 20 minutes.)

The new year celebration officially lasts for 15 days, but just the first 3 days are officially a public holiday. During these 15 days, there are a lot of different traditions as well. First of all, someone told me, the old tradition says that you are not supposed to wash your hair during the first 15 days, as to not wash away your luck.

Day one and two of the Chinese new year are usually family days. People will visit relatives to have dinner and wish them a prosperous and healthy new year. Besides that, many people will visit some of the old temples to make a wish for their family or to worship their ancestors. I heard that on the third day you are not supposed to visit your family, as this day is cursed for visiting relatives. According to some old myth, if you will visit your relatives on this day, you will end up having arguments with them, so this day better not to visit with them.

One tradition I personally like is the tradition that involves the so called red pockets. If you are married, you have to give a red pocket to all your friends and family members that are not married, once they say "Kung Hei Fat Choi" (Happy New Year) to you. A red pocket is a small red envelope in which they put a certain amount of money. (Usually between 10 and 100 Hong Kong dollar).

Red Pockets, lucky me!
For people that are not married (like me), this is a very good time of the year, as you are able to gather a reasonable amount of money. Make sure that you do not open the envelope in front of other people, and also you should put the envelopes under your pillow at least one night, to make a good fortune.

You can see that the Chinese new year is quite different from what we western people are used to. I never expected that these days, just in the middle of January, could be so special for a major part of the world's population! Next Chinese new year, when you walk in Chinatown or visit a Chinese restaurant somewhere, wish them happy new year. I'm sure they will appreciate very much!

Kung Hei Fat Choi! (Happy New Year!)
(In Cantonese)

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