Of all the traditional Chinese festivals, the new Year was perhaps the most elaborate, colorful, 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.
After the house was cleaned it was time to bid farewell to the Kitchen God, or Zaowang. In traditional China, the Kitchen God was regarded as the guardian of the family hearth. He was identified as the inventor of fire, which was necessary for cooking and was also the censor of household morals. By tradition, the Kitchen God left the house on the 23rd of the last month to report to heaven on the behavior of the family. At this time, the family did everything possible to obtain a favorable report from the Kitchen God. On the evening of the 23rd, the family would give the Kitchen God a ritualistic farewell dinner with sweet foods and honey. Some said this was a bribe, others said it sealed his mouth from saying bad thins.
Free from the every-watchful eyes of the Kitchen God, who was supposed to return on the first day of the New Year, the family now prepared for the upcoming celebrations. In old China, stores closed shop on the last two or three days of the year and remained closed for the first week of the New Year. Consequently, families were busy in the last week of the old year stocking up on foods and gifts. Chinese New Year presents are similar in spirit to Christmas presents, although the Chinese tended more often to give food items, such as fruits and tea. The last days of the old year was also the time to settle accumulated. debts.
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 strictly 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.
The entire first week was a time for socializing and amusement. On the streets, the stores were closed and an air of gaiety prevailed. There were numberous lion dances, acrobats, theatrical shows, and other diversions. Firecrackers, which symbolized driving away evil spirits, were heard throughout the first two weeks of the New year. The Seventh Day of the New Year was called “everybody’s birthday” as everyone was considered one year older as of that date. (In traditional China, individual birthdays were not considered as important as the New Year’s date. Everyone added a year to his age at New Year’s time rather than at his birthday.)
Lantern Festival – 15th Day
The New Year celebrations ended on the 15th of the First Moon with the Lantern Festival. On the evening of that day, people carried lanterns into the streets to take part in a great parade. Young men would highlight the parade with a dragon dance. The dragon was made of bamboo, silk, and paper, and might stretch for more than hundred feet in length. The bobbing and weaving of the dragon was an impressive sight, and formed a fitting finish to the New Year festival.
Chinese New Year Festival as Seen in the United States
The Chinese New Year celebration in San Francisco Chinatown and other Chinese American communities should not be interpreted as direct transplants of Chinese culture. Due to differences in their social environment and physical limitations, these local celebrations have developed special characteristics of their own. Along with old customs imported directly from China, the Chinatown celebrations also contain adaptations from other cultures in the United States.
Traditional vs Modern
The first point to be noticed in comparing the Chinatown celebrations of today to that described in the preceding section is that they have been shortened or simplified. Chinese American stores in this country do not close for a week to celebrate, nor is is likely that a Chinese American could take two weeks off from work. Therefore, many of the festivities have been adapted for the evenings or the weekends. This includes the social visits, the family dinners, and even the Chinatown parade, which is always held on a Saturday. In many Chinese American homes, the annual housecleaning is still done at New Year’s time. Spring Couplets can be seen in Chinatown stores everywhere, but these are now bought from the Chinse Hospital as a fundraising effort – an interesting variation on an old Chinese custom.
In addition to the Spring Couplets, the Chinatown lion dances have also been promoted as a fundraising event for the Chinese Hospital. In the earlier days of Chinatown, lion dances were relatively rare. In the 1920’s, a fundraising program was started whereby lion dancers would go from store to store to dance and wish them luck. In return, storekeepers would give Lai-see packets which were donated to the Chinese Hospital.
Chinatown Festival & Parade
The Chinatown parade is a bend of typical American marching parades and the traditional Lantern Festival. Although the dragon dance is adopted from the Chinese celebration, the rest of the Chinatown parade, including the beauty pageant, floats, and marching bands, was obviously inspired by non-Chinese models. The parade was first started in 1953 by the Chinese Chamber of Commerce and has since attracted thousands of spectators each year.
Some Chinatown festivities also reflect the earlier history of Chinese Americans. Prior to the present generation, the Chinese American community was essentially a bachelor society. Restrictive immigration laws had made it extremely difficult for Chinese families to emigrate to the United States. As a result, most Chinese Americans in the past were not able to hold family dinners at New Year’s time. In place of the family banquets, Chinatown developed a unique tradition of Spring Banquets hosted by the ” family associations” in certain Chinese restaurants. These Spring Banquets, originally developed to take the place of family dinners, are still held today, even though Chinatown is no longer a society of single men.