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The bustle and clamor at the markets selling colorful spring couplets and other New Year's decorations. Beginning in mid-December, families all around China start preparing for Chinese New Year, creating an atmosphere of joy and renewal.

A time of gratitude and family togetherness, New Year's Eve is spent by bidding farewell to the old year and thanking one's ancestors and the gods for their blessing and protection. Children who have left their hometowns return on this day to share New Year's Eve Dinner with their families, and for those unable to make the journey, a table setting is placed to symbolize their presence in spirit if not in body. At the end of dinner, the parents and older generation give New Year's money to the children, who have been waiting with growing anticipation for this moment to arrive. Finally, to watch the old year out and bring in the new year, families stay up until the wee hours of New Year's Day.

With the arrival of New Year’s Day, life is renewed and the new year begins to unfold amidst the noise of firecrackers. The Chinese begin the day by worshipping their ancestors, following which the streets become filled with people making New Year’s visits to friends and relatives and with the lively display of dragon dancing, lion dancing, and other folk activities.

To insure the arrival of luck and wealth in the new year, several taboos must be heeded. Floors may not be swept and garbage may not be disposed for fear of casting riches out the door; cussing and quarreling is to be avoided at all costs; and anyone who breaks a dish on this day must quickly say “Peace for all time,” to avoid incurring misfortune.

On the second day of the new year, married women return to their natal home to visit family; on the fourth day, the gods return to the world of the living; and on the fifth day, many new stores and old businesses open their doors for the first time due to the auspiciousness of the day. The festive air of celebration continues in this manner all the way up to the Lantern Festival on the fifteenth day of the new year before slowly ebbing back to normal life again.

Though the customary festivities held on Chinese New Year have been handed down for millennia, they still retain tremendous significance today. The cleaning and arrangement of one’s living environment improves household sanitation and symbolizes a new beginning; the worship of ancestors and deities reflects the Chinese emphasis on filial piety and family ethics, and serves as an expression of gratitude; sitting around the hearth symbolizes unity and the value of spending important occasions together with family; and the customs of making New Year’s visits and returning home to one’s parents after marriage helps to maintain important social bonds between friends and families. Taboos may perhaps be seen as ancient ways of harmonizing and regulating one’s lifestyle. Thus, preserving and incorporating the values of these New Year traditions into modern day life is a goal Chinese people strive for.

Stories and customs

A Story about Dumplings

The clock has struck midnight, the New Year arrives with a bang and many people in the West begin to get tucked into glasses of champagne. The New Year in China begins in a very different way, since champagne is not the order of the day, but bowls of freshly steamed dumplings, or Jiaozi. These are served, freshly cooked, just after the stroke of midnight and like the English tradition of putting a sixpence in the Christmas pudding, a Chinese coin is hidden in one of the dumplings. The person who finds the coin is said to receive good luck over the coming year and is regarded at that point as the luckiest member of the family.

It’s very difficult to say when the custom began and almost every family has it’s own collection of stories. Many of them involve a poor family who find themselves without any food or fuel on New Year’s Eve. Without food or fuel, the family were too cold and too depressed to go to sleep and sat there waiting to hear the drums signal the start of the coming year.

The women of the family were determined to keep their spirits up and the began to joke with the old man of the family. They made light of their lack of food and asked the old man of the family, what he wanted to eat. The old man, eager to join in the spirit of things, said that he wanted dumplings made of gold, cooked over a fire of gold bars. The women laughed, but the old man was serious and told them to start preparing it and in order to keep the game going, they went into the kitchen to see what could be done.

They used the dust that was left in the flour jar and dug up a few frozen vegetables from the garden and managed to make a few dumplings. With no fuel, they used the wooden fence to make a small fire and once this had been done, they went and told the old man that the meal that he had ordered, would be served soon. Of course, he was very surprised, especially when he saw the smoke and went to fire to see what the women had prepared.

At this point in the story, as is often the case, a god appears, this time the god of wealth and he was touched by the actions of the family and as a result, he decided to play a little game on the family himself.

When the old man went in to the kitchen, he couldn’t believe his eyes, because on top of the fire were some real gold bars and when he looked into the pot, he noticed that some of the dumplings were made of pure gold.

The family were the talk of the village and everyone came to see the gold and they were convinced that it was the dumplings that the women had made which had produced this incredible good fortune. As a result, many people began to make these dumplings at New Year, in the hope that it would encourage a visit from the god of wealth. This led to the present custom of putting a coin inside, since it ensured that at least one member of the family would receive good luck.

The Jade Emperor & The Kitchen God

A Chinese saying reminds us to always behave as if a hundred people are watching and to ensure a least one permanent visitor, traditional Chinese families hang a picture of the Kitchen God up at New Year. This is after sending the old image up to Heaven, so that he can report directly to the Jade Emperor, providing an account of the family’s behaviour. It is the custom to smear the old image with a traditional Chinese sticky sweet, some say to sweeten up the kitchen God so that he makes a good report. Others say it is to stick his lips together, to prevent him from speaking, but there is no doubt who he reports to.

During the course of the year, he takes note of everything that he hears and sees in the kitchen, the traditional place of the tang, the fire and in many ways, the heart of the house. He is always placed in this room, hence the familiar term Kitchen God.

In traditional Chinese terms, Heaven is thought of as a version of society, complete with it’s ministers, officials and usual bureaucrats and The Jade Emperor is the man in charge. He is the top figure, the supreme god, in an establishment which serves the one true god. As such, he is considered to be a very powerful figure, even if somewhat remote. He has been around for at least 1000 years, although his character, like many, may well have even older origins.

If the Kitchen God makes a favourable report, the Jade Emperor will look favourably on you and since so many other powerful figures work for him, this can only be good, after all, as we all know, it pays to be in good standing with the boss.

Tsai Shen - The God of Wealth

In the Chinese establishment of Heaven, many are associated with wealth and to make things even more confusing, some are known by different names, but everyone knows Tsai Shen. During the 15 days of the New Year celebrations there are many old customs and superstitions involving the money luck for the coming year. Wheels are spun to symbolise getting things off to a flying start and everyone is optimistic about their chances for the coming year, mind you, they try to improve their luck by any means possible, after all, why take the chance.

Even though the Chinese are famous for their love of gambling, there are certain things that they would never gamble against and they try to take as many precautions as possible. Even the slightest suggestion that fate is conspiring against them, would make them think again.

The use of brooms is frowned on by many during the New year, since it is said that they can sweep away the good fortune. Knives are also considered to be unlucky on New Years day, since they are said to cut the good luck and some go as far as not washing their children, for fear of washing away the good fortune.

One of the most popular New Year activities, is the distribution of what is termed, good luck money which is usually presented in a highly decorative, red envelope.

This is a very auspicious time for children, who are often the recipients of the good luck money. Those who give it are considered even more fortunate than those who receive it, after all, as the Chinese proverb reminds us; for every bar of silver that you give away, a hundred will return. Many families will purchase a new Almanac, since it is considered to be very lucky in itself and the new copy is usually hung up near the family shrine. Many people treat themselves to new clothes, believing that this will encourage future prosperity, much in the same way that old coins are said to represent old money and therefore, the wealth of previous generations.

The Lantern Festival - February 7th

This traditionally marks the end of the New Year Celebrations and it is always nice to finish on a good note. This is a major festival, often celebrated with street processions of musicians, jugglers, acrobats and all manner of entertainment. In ancient times, this was taken very seriously and one Emperor used thousands of entertainers performing from beautifully illuminated and elaborate stages that went on for miles.

If you have a garden then why not light it up with candles, night lights and paper lanterns, invite your family and friends and celebrate the last night of celebrations. For a really authentic touch, visit your local Chinese store because they are sure to have decorated paper lanterns available and these look lovely hanging from the trees. Dumplings are again on the menu, this time, sweet sticky ones called, yuanxiao which symbolise the family sticking together. Since this marks the end of the New Year celebrations, this ancient festival is still plays an important role, after all, the following day, it’s business as usual.

The Process of “Bai Lin”

The Chinese put good luck and good wishes as their very first priority. Some customs and actions are strictly followed by the Chinese in order to keep the luck and wishes alive. One of these customs is called “Bai Lin”, which is the visiting of friends and relatives during Chinese New Year. The steps involved in going to “Bai Lin” to your friends and relatives during Chinese New Year are described below.

The Steps of “Bai Lin” :

1. Make sure that you are nice and clean, and wear red colour clothes.
2. Buy a gift (candy, cookies, fruits etc.) for those relatives and
friends that you are going to visit.
3. When you see your friends and relatives, the first thing you say to
them is “Guey Hay Fat Choy!”.
4. You take some fruit and candy from their candy box.
5. Older people give out “red envelopes” to younger people.

Explanation of the Steps :

Why is “red” very important in Chinese New Year.
For the Chinese, the colour red represents happiness and joy. If you wear red clothes, you bring more happiness and joy to the people around you.

Why you need to buy “gift” for your friends and relatives.
The Chinese buy gifts for friends and relatives to show their respect for them. If you visit them without any gifts, they will consider you as impolite.

Why you need to say “Guey Hay Fat Choy!” when you see your friends and relatives.
“Guey Hay Fat Choy!” means you wish that they have plenty of wealth in the coming year. The Chinese also follow this custom during the New Year.

Why you need to take fruit and candy from their candy box.
The Chinese prepare their candy box for their family. Each fruit and candy in the box represents the good luck and good wishes from their family. If you take fruit and candy from the candy box, it means that the luck and wishes have been delivered to you.

Why older people give out “red envelopes” to younger people.
Inside the “red envelopes” is some lucky money. The purpose of the older people giving out money to the younger people is to let the younger people buy something that they like on their own or let them save money for the coming year.