Chances are, most Americans spent their Wednesday with the usual proclivities — working, studying, watching the rain fall, maybe refueling with a mid-afternoon cappuccino before going back to the drudgery of hump day. And amid our scurrying, billions of others were lighting firecrackers, drinking plum wine and watching paper lions dance through streets of red and gold. In fact, half the globe had already closed up shop, getting ready for the Chinese New Year (otherwise known as the Lunar New Year, for those unwilling to be labeled sinophiles).
YES, IT IS A BIG DEAL
There is a large misconception that the Chinese New Year wavers under its Gregorian counterpart with regard to pomp and circumstance. But, one can blame the press for that.
Western media blitzes 24-hour coverage from “”around the world”” with the solar New Year, while the lunar New Year might get a 2-minute montage on the nightly news. True, the “”whole”” world does not celebrate — let alone recognize — the Chinese New Year, which would explain the discrepancy in media coverage. However, it also suggests that those who do celebrate the holiday view it to be less important or significant.
Big mistake. There’s a reason why most Asian countries don’t carry the luster or glitz of Paris or New York at midnight on January 1. Simply put, it’s not that big of a deal to them. So, more as a token, they get together and ceremonially gong an old bell or throw some weird performance piece calling for global unity and the like. Many are also preparing for the oncoming lunar New Year, buying gifts for family and making travel arrangements to go back to their hometowns. These preparations take longer than the West, primarily because the New Year is celebrated during a week-long period, rather than one whopping night and a hung-over day. In China alone, government officials are expecting 1.6 billion trips to occur during the holiday week. Worldwide, 2.1 billion trips are expected to occur during the first three days of the New Year. All Asia-bound airlines have added approximately 20 percent more flights, while bus stations can expect 4,000 customers daily.
The Chinese New Year is the Asian equivalent of Christmas in terms of economic growth. That one season can make the difference between profit and bankruptcy. By extending last year’s official holiday from three days to one week, retail profits jumped from single- to double-digit percentages. China’s growing leniency toward loosened social controls has also caused a boom in the travel industry, where 20 years ago there really was no such thing as “”New Year’s”” season.
WHEN IS IT?
Because the Chinese New Year follows the lunar cycle, the dates change every year under the Roman calendar. However, the solar year is taken into account. Because the lunar cycle lasts for 29.5 days, extra months must be inserted every few years in order to “”catch up”” with the solar calendar. This can best be compared to adding an extra day on leap year. The Chinese New Year starts with the new moon on the first day of the year and ends on the full moon 15 days later. This 15th day is better known as the “”Lantern Festival,”” where children parade through the streets brandishing an assortment of colorful lanterns. According to legend, the Yellow Emperor, Huang Ti, started to compute time in 2696 with the help of his prime minister. Therefore, under the Chinese calendar, this year is really 4697 rather than 2001.
Historically, there isn’t so much to go on in terms of triangulating an academic explanation of the Chinese New Year. What roots the East to the lunar calendar is a tradition so deeply embedded into its culture, it has become a marker of national pride and identification. Virtually everything drunk, eaten or played with has symbolic value.
The holiday itself carries a nifty little creation myth concerning a beast named “”Nian,”” translated into English as “”year,”” who gets hungry for humans after a terribly bad winter season. Consequently, an immortal god, disguising himself as an old man, tricks the beast into swallowing all the other animals terrorizing humankind. He eventually mounts the beast and rides off into the proverbial sunset. Before leaving, however, the god warns the people to place red lanterns and light firecrackers at each year’s end to scare away the Nian in case it happens to sneak back.
Not only does this explain the importance of the color red as well as its exorbitant use of firecrackers in New Year’s festivities, it also uncovers a smart pun on words. “”Guo Nian,”” meaning “”celebrate the (New) Year,”” may also be translated as “”surviving the beast,”” as the word “”nian”” refers to the mythical creature and “”guo”” carries the double definitions of “”observing”” as well as “”passing over.”” However, this creation myth is generally restricted to the Chinese, as other Asian cultures who celebrate the New Year do not share this view or may not even be familiar with it.
New Year’s Day is celebrated as a family affair throughout Asia. It is considered a time for reconciliation, reunion and most importantly, thanksgiving. The holiday was traditionally celebrated with a religious ceremony honoring Heaven and Earth, the gods of the household as well as family ancestors. Consequently, the most vital ritual concerning the New Year was a sacrifice to the ancestors, which promised unity among living members of the family and a peaceful rest for ancestral spirits. Therefore, on New Year’s Eve, the communal dinner called “”weilu,”” or “”surrounding the stove,”” was held in their honor and became a symbol for cohesion and reverence for the past.
There are a cornucopia of traditions involved with the Chinese New Year. Of the more notable, all debts are to be paid before the New Year. Otherwise, one is subjected to another year of debt. All sons and daughters are expected to return to their families, married couples generally going to the groom’s family. All homes are cleaned thoroughly, not only in anticipation of returning children, but also as sign of purity within the household. Doors are decorated with red and gold cut-outs with themes of wealth and longevity. New Year’s Eve is usually spent at home, feasting together with traditional dishes such as rice pudding and steamed dumplings. Midnight is received with firecrackers bursting through the streets, intended to drive evil spirits away. Lights are kept on throughout the night, again to discourage evil spirits from entering.
On the first morning, children are given envelopes filled with money from their families, symbolizing wishes for good luck. In return, children are expected to wish all adults an auspicious and lucrative new year. After the whole family gets up, it begins caravaning door to door, wishing good luck and fortune to relatives, friends and neighbors.
Although these customs are primarily Chinese, other Asian nations that celebrate the Lunar New Year share similar traditions with minor variant features. The Taiwanese carry a more elaborate tradition with their fireworks, whereas Korean children must ceremonially bow to their elders before receiving their monetary “”blessings.””
No matter what the changes in detail may be, the East as a whole, if it may be grouped as a “”whole,”” considers the Lunar New Year to be a time of family reunion and ritual pageantry. The spontaneity of deciding where to “”spend”” New Year’s Eve is replaced with tradition and reminiscence. It might not be as “”exciting”” as millions of couples kissing at midnight amidst thousands of fireworks under the Eiffel Tower. But hey, at least you don’t have to find a date.