Friday, February 07, 2014

Supernatural Friday: Forget Those Chopsticks and Learn the Myths Behind the Chinese New Year

The Chinese New Year 2014 began January 31st. This year it is the year of the horse. Which happens to be my son's and my Chinese Zodiac animal. 

The Chinese Zodiac has the horse, tiger, rat, rooster, dragon, snake, goat, monkey, ox, dog, cat, rabbit and the boar.

The new year celebrations were born out of fear and myth. There is an ancient Chinese legend that told of a man-eating predatory beast called Nian. This creature was fierce, and had a long head and sharp horn. Nian dwelled deep in the sea most of the year, but on every Chinese New Year Eve it climbed onto the shore, and devour livestock and harm humans in a near-by village. Every Chinese New Year's Eve, the villagers would take their old and young and head for the mountains to hide from the monster.

One Chinese New Year's Eve, a grey haired man appeared in the village. He asked permission to stay for the night and assured everyone that he would chase away the beast. No one believed him. When it was time to go hide in the mountains, the old man steadfastly refused to do that. The villagers departed without him.

The beast arrived at the village to wreck havoc as usual, but it was met with a sudden burst of exploding firecrackers. Startled by the noise, the flashes of light and red banners flying about, it turned about and fled back into the sea.

The next day, when the villagers returned from the mountains, they found everything intact and safe. The old man had left, but they found the remains of the three precious items he had used to chase the beast Nian away. They all agreed that the old man must be a deity who had come to help free them of the beast.

From then on, every Chinese New Year's Eve, families hung red banners, set off fire crackers, and light their lamps the whole night through, awaiting the Chinese New Year. The custom spread far and wide and became a grand traditional celebration of the "Passing of Nian" ("Nian" in Chinese means "year"). So celebrating the Chinese New Year is "passing of Nian" or "Guo Nian" in Chinese. 

Today, the 15-day New Year festivities are celebrated with a week of vacation in metropolitan areas of China. Much like the Western New Year (January 1st), the biggest celebration is on the eve of the holiday. But aside from New Year's Eve, there are other important days of the 15-day New Year Festival, including:

JIE CAI CENG: Welcoming the Gods of Wealth and Prosperity
On the 5th day of New Year's, it is believed that the gods of prosperity come down from the heavens. Businesses will often participate in setting off firecrackers as they believe it will bring them prosperity and good fortune for their business.

YUAN XIAO JIE: Festival of Lanterns
The 15th day of the New Year is known as The Festival of Lanterns and marks the end of the Chinese New Year celebrations. All types of lanterns are lit throughout the streets and often poems and riddles are often written for entertainment. There are also paper lanterns on wheels created in the form of either a rabbit or the animal of the year (Pig for 2007). The rabbit lantern stems from a Chinese myth or fairytale about a female goddess named "Chang E" who jumped onto the moon. So she wouldn't travel alone, she brought a rabbit with her to keep her company. It is said that if your heart is pure enough, you can see the goddess Chang E and her rabbit on the moon on this day.

Called "hong bao" in Mandarin, the red envelopes filled with money are typically only given to children or unmarried adults with no job. If you're single and working and making money, you still have to give the younger ones the hong bao money. The color red denotes good luck/fortune and happiness/abundance in the Chinese Culture and is often worn or used for decoration in other celebrations.

The Dragon is present in many Chinese cultural celebrations as the Chinese people often think of themselves as descendants of the mythical creature. On the fifth day of the New Year when many people have to start going back to work, they will also have the Dancing Dragons perform in the front of the office building. On the 15th day of the New Year (Yuan Xiao Jie), they will also have a lot of dancing dragon performances. The dragon represents prosperity, good luck and good fortune.

Traditional Foods

The Chinese New Year's Eve meal is the most important dinner of the year. Typically, families gather at a designated relative's house for dinner, but these days, many families often celebrate New Year's Eve dinner at a restaurant. Many restaurants require reservations months in advance. There are also some families that hire a professional chef to come cook at their house. Chefs are often busy running from one home to another cooking dinners for different families on New Year's Eve.

Chinese New Year is a 15-day celebration and each day, many families rotate celebrations between homes of their relatives. The festivies are day-long and sometimes, a family ends up cooking two meals for their relatives, once at lunch and once at dinner. These dishes used to be all made from scratch, but now people can easily buy them prepackaged at the supermarkets.
Eight Treasures Rice (contains glutinous rice, walnuts, different colored dry fruit, raisins, sweet red bean paste, jujube dates, and almonds). 

"Tang Yuan" - black sesame rice ball soup; or a Won Ton soup.
Chicken, duck, fish and pork dishes.
"Song Gao", literally translates to "loose cake"- which is made of rice which has been coarsely ground and then formed into a small, sweet round cake.
"Jiu Niang Tang" - sweet wine-rice soup which contains small glutinous rice balls
a sweet soup made of cut-up fruit: Cut fruit is added into hot/warm water which has had a thickening agent (like cornstarch).

Based on the Lunar Calendar
The date of Chinese New Year changes each year as it is based on the lunar calendar. While the western Gregorian calendar is based on the earth’s orbit around the sun, China and most Asian countries use the lunar calendar that is based on the moon’s orbit around the earth. Chinese New Year always falls on the second new moon after the winter solstice. Other Asian countries such as Korea, Japan and Vietnam also celebrate new year using the lunar calendar.
Though Buddhism and Daoism have unique customs during the New Year, the Chinese New Year is far older than both religions. Chinese New Year is rooted in much a celebration of spring just like Easter or Passover. 

Depending on where rice is grown in China, the rice season lasts from roughly May to September (north China), April to October (Yangtze River Valley), or March to November (Southeast China). The New Year was likely the start of preparations for a new growing season.
Spring cleaning is a common theme during this time. Chinese people clean out their homes during the holiday. There is another possible reason for the New Year celebration just a way to break up the boredom of the long winter months. 

Another interesting Chinese festival concerns hungry ghost. I blogged about that at Supernatural Friday: Ghosts Are Hungry.

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