1. Have you ever wondered why during Lunar New Year, people place red posters with deities on either side of their doors? Why all the firecrackers? What is “Gong Xi Fa Cai”?
In ancient Chinese mythology, the world is filled with spirits both good and evil. Every sundown they are released into the human realm and return to the spirit realm by morning. It is said that there are two fearsome deities guarding the entrance to the spirit realm and will catch spirits who’ve committed evil in the human realm and that all spirits good and evil feared these two deities. It then became tradition to place drawings of these two deities on doors to ward off evil spirits.
“Year” is actually the name of a monster that terrorized the human realm once a year on Lunar New Year’s Eve. It hates the color red and loud noise; to fend “Year” off people used drums, gongs and firecrackers to make loud noise and put up things that are red around their houses. The next day, the first day of the next Lunar New Year, people would congratulate each other on surviving another “Year Attack” by saying “Gong Xi Fa Cai” meaning good fortune and wealth to each other.
2. It’s tradition that on the first day of the Lunar New Year, one should visit ones family and friends at their homes.
When receiving New Year visitors a box called “Quan He” filled with candies and snacks inside is generally offered to guests. These boxes are specially designed with New Year colors such as red and gold, are almost always round (meaning complete and fulfillment in Chinese), and decorated with animals and flowers that are considered to bring good fortune.
The box itself is separated into odd numbered compartments; the higher the number of compartments the higher the social status of the household. It is considered to bring good luck and fortune to eat these candies and snacks. Nowadays it’s a headache for parents as it’s against tradition for their children to not take these candies but it’s against their own health if they take too much and they almost always take too much.
3. How come people put on dragon and lion costumes and dance in them during Lunar New Year?
The dragon costume comes from this story: It is said that the dragon emperor had a bad hip (We will not go into where is a dragon’s hip and how he got one). One day he decided to come to the human realm and look for doctors that can fix his hip (because no dragon doctor can complete the task obviously). After a long search he finally found a doctor who cured his hip. To thank him, the dragon emperor told the doctor that if he puts on a costume that resembles the dragon emperor and dance around during important festivals, it will help to bring good weather which will ultimately lead to a good harvest.
The lion costume actually ties in with the “Year” monster myth. Traditionally lions are viewed in ancient China as the king of all animals (You ask what about dragons? Well they have bad hips). To scare off the “Year” monster, people put on lion masks and danced around to loud sounds (drums and gongs) to scare it away.
Therefore it is tradition for people to wear dragon and lion costumes during Lunar New Year to scare off the “Year” monster and to pray for good weather and harvest in the New Year.
4. The Story on the 3rd day: All mice take their brides
Every calendar day after the lunar New Year all the way to the Lantern Festival on the 15th has a specific meaning or story associated with that day. The story on the third day goes like this. It is said that on the night of the third day of the Lunar New Year is when all mice take their brides. So on this day you are supposed to sleep very early and turn all lights off to not disturb the mice’s wedding. If you do disturb their wedding they will wreak havoc in your house in the New Year. You are also supposed to place small amounts of food around the house in celebration of their wedding so they will not come to your kitchen and eat all your food during the year.
It is also said that this story has a backstory and that people are so busy preparing for the Lunar New Year they want to take a day off on the third to rest. So this story was made up so people can rest early on the third to get ready for a whole year’s worth of work starting the next day.
5. Is there anything you should not do during Lunar New Year?
There are a lot of taboos and traditional no nos during Lunar New Year. These traditional restrictions and rules have somewhat made people very cautious during this time. Although we can’t really verify the authenticity behind the consequences of breaking these traditional taboos it’s always fun to know them.
Before the 5th it is best to not clean and spill water from the inside to the outside as it is considered that this will chase away the fortune deity. After the 5th if one wants to clean, one should always sweep from the outside in to keep all the good fortune and not sweep them away.
One should not get angry, say curse words or bicker at children, if one can keep away from all these a peaceful year with no fights or quarrels awaits.
Do not ask people to pay back their debt, it will bring bad luck.
Unless necessary, do not visit hospitals to have good health for the year.
Women who are married can only return to their maiden homes on the second and third day of the lunar calendar. It is considered bad fortune for the family if they return before or after these two days.
If fish is served during the New Year one should always leave some as leftover. As the word “fish” in Chinese sounds the same as another word that means “more”. So it is important to leave some fish as it means leaving more for oneself in whatever one does in the New Year.
If one breaks glassware during lunar New Year always wrap the glassware in red paper and say the word “break” in Chinese as it sounds the same as “age” which is interpreted as longevity and good fortune.
6. Why eat dumplings during Lunar New Year?
Dumplings are shaped like ancient Chinese money that are called “Yuan Bao” so the more one eats the more wealth one will receive in the New Year.
7. Why do people give out and receive red envelops with money in them and why do people stay up late to “watch and protect their age”.
They story goes there is a monster called “Xui” and on lunar New Year’s Eve, it will go to people’s houses and specifically hurt children and make them sick. To protect children from Xui adults stay up late and play with children using shiny bronze coins and once the children are asleep these coins are placed under the children’s pillows so when Xui does come, it can be scared away by the shiny metals. These coins later on became “Protect Xui” money and evolved into the red pockets today. It became tradition to stay up late on Lunar New Year’s Eve to “protect your age” and to only give red pockets to family members who are a generation below you.
8. Why people wear new clothes during Lunar New Year?
The obvious meaning is out with the old and in with the new. In the old farming society just before the Lunar New Year is the harvest season and every household will have some extra income. To welcome the New Year and to pray for prosperity, health, and good harvest in the New Year everyone will wear new clothing. The preferred color for these new clothes is always red as red represents good fortune in the Chinese culture.
9. How did Lantern Festival come about and why do people eat sweet rice desserts during this festival?
Lantern Festival’s Chinese name is “Yuan Xiao Festival”. Yuan Xiao is an actual concubine during the Han dynasty. Back in those days, once girls are sent into the emperor’s palace they will most likely not see their families ever again. Yuan Xiao was in the same situation. She missed her family so much that she actually tried to commit suicide. Luckily, one of the ministers saw this, saved her and decided to come up with a plan to help her. As this minister was well known and respected by the people as well as the Han emperor, he tricked the public into believing that on the 15th day of the Lunar New Year the Fire God is planning to set fire to the entire city and the only way to prevent this from happening is if the residence of the city light up lanterns and firecrackers all around the city to act as if the city is on fire.
In addition to the lanterns he recommended the people to prepare sweet rice desserts as offerings to the Fire God. He then went to the Han emperor and told him that this is the best way to please the Gods but is inappropriate for everyone inside the palace to do the same. He recommended the emperor to send concubines outside the palace to pretend that the palace is on fire too. The emperor agreed and put the minister in charge of this task. The minister was able to name Yuan Xiao as one of the concubines leaving the palace and Yuan Xiao got to reunite with her family on the 15th of the lunar calendar. Therefore on the 15th day of the lunar calendar it is tradition to hang up lanterns and prepare sweet rice desserts and the day later became known as “Yuan Xiao Festival” and later on “Lantern Festival”.