Traditions and Customs of Chinese Lunar New Year
Chinese Lunar New Year for 2015 will fall on 19th February.
The Chinese people have very rich traditions for their New Year. Traditions and customs for the festive preparations have been described in an earlier hub.
This hub deals mainly with the traditions and customs for Reunion Dinner and the 15 days of festive celebrations:
Reunion Dinner (团年饭)
Family members from abroad will try to return home in time for the annual reunion dinner, which was always held on the eve of the Lunar New Year in olden days.
Nowadays, as reunion dinners are mostly held at restaurants, which are always fully booked on New Year’s Eve, some families will have their Reunion Dinner a few days earlier.
It is usually an eight-course dinner. All the dishes will have symbolic meanings to usher in wealth, happiness, health, good fortune, and success in career or business. This, in fact, applies to all feasting throughout the Chinese New Year (CNY).
For example, Lettuce with Dried Oyster and Sea Moss & Mushroom with Oyster Sauce represent fortune and wealth while Carp Fish Casserole symbolizes good wishes and abundance.
Lo hei (捞起) yusheng (鱼生) is a must-have during the festive feasting. It is a CNY delicacy created in Singapore.
The atmosphere at the Reunion Dinner should be a happy and joyous one. Conversations should only be on auspicious topics.
The act of staying up throughout the night on Chinese New Year’s Eve is called Shousui. The Chinese character for shou (守) means “to guard or to keep watch” while that for sui (岁) means “year”.
Not sleeping the whole night is said to show that the person is full of energy and implies good health in the new year. It is also a way of bidding goodbye to the “old” year.
For the young people who “shoushui”, it is an act of filial piety because it is a belief that children who shousui will bring longevity to their parents (守冬爷长命, 守岁娘长命).
First Incense Stick (头柱香)
Some people believe that offering the first incense stick at a temple on New Year Day will bring good luck for the rest of the year.
New Year Day commences at the hour of Zi (子时) (2300 hours to 0100 hours). Most temples, opening at this hour, will find a big crowd outside their entrances, each one hoping to be the first to rush in.
Bai Nian ( 拜年)
A few decades ago, most families have ancestral tablets at home. They have to pray to the gods and ancestors before leaving the home for the New Year’s visits. Going around visiting during this festive season is called “bai nian”.
Traditionally, people have to wear new clothes and shoes on New Year’s Day, to indicate a fresh beginning.
For married couples, the first visit must be to the parents’ home of the man. They and their children (if any), will have to offer tea to the grandparents, parents, and other elderly family members, with wishes of happiness, good health, and long life.
Next day will be the visit to the parents’ home of the woman. The 2nd day of the New Year was known as “Son-in-law’s Day” in ancient China because of this custom.
The visits to relatives and friends will only begin on the 3rd day of the New Year until the 15th day of the festival.
This custom on Bai Nian is reflected in the ancient sayings: 初一拜本家, 初二拜岳家, 初三拜亲戚 (literally translated as 1st-day own parents, 2nd-day in-laws, and 3rd-day relatives).
Taboos on New Year’s Day
New Year’s Day has lots of taboos. The most common ones are:
- Sweeping of the floor is forbidden because it means sweeping out the good luck.
- Parents have to refrain from scolding their children, even if they did something wrong. Children, on being scolded, might cry and this will bring bad luck, as well as spoil the joyous mood of the festival.
- Unless due to an emergency, a visit to the clinic or hospital should be avoided by all means. Seeing a doctor on the first day of the new year is definitely a bad start for the year.
- It is considered ill-omen if a porcelain item is broken. As a consolation psychologically, people will quickly say “fall flowering riches and honour” (落地开花, 富贵荣华) .
- On meeting people, auspicious greetings should be exchanged. No topics on bad things are to be brought up during conversations.
- Purchase of shoes is a taboo that lasts until the 15th day of the festival. This is because shoes, when pronounced in Cantonese, sounds like sighing.
- The day is to be spent on visiting, feasting and enjoyment. Toiling on this day means “hard life” for the rest of the year.
“Kai nian fan” (开年饭) - 2nd Day
The 2nd day of New Year is called “Opening of the year"” (开年). “Kai nian fan” refers to the Chinese New Year Kick off Lunch on this day. It is said that the new year officially begins after consuming this meal.
As the “kai nian fan” signifies the actual start of the year, all the dishes served have names that are homophones of words relating to blessings and good fortunes.
A whole steamed chicken represents happiness in marriage and unity in the family. Braised pig's knuckles with sea moss stands for good luck in gambling. Oyster with black sea moss suggests good business.
The dried black sea moss, called “Fatt Choy” in Cantonese, is a primary ingredient in CNY dishes. This is because Fatt Choy sounds like “struck richness” or “good fortune.”
Other essential food ingredients include fish, prawn, pig’s tongue, winter bamboo shoots, lotus roots, red dates, lotus seeds, celery, spring onions, leeks, and so on.
For the poor families who cannot afford expensive dishes, they must have at least roast pork and lettuce for the CNY Kick off Lunch. The red skin of the roast pork (红皮赤壮）represents good health while lettuce signifies wealth.
Once the “kai nian fan” is eaten, it is considered “bai wu jin ji” (百无禁忌), meaning that any activities can be carried out without having to worry about whether it is auspicious or not, such as sweeping of the floor.
“Ruthless Chicken” (无情鸡)
Some Chinese businesses will hold “kai nian fan” for their employees. It can be lunch or dinner. Occasionally, a boss will take this opportunity to tactfully dismiss a worker. He will personally put a piece of chicken in that person’s bowl, together with a red packet, saying “please look for another job.”
In the traditional Chinese business circle, this meal on the 2nd day of New Year is also called “Tou ya fan” (头牙饭). Workers in those days usually attended such an occasion with some anxiety, afraid of being the one to receive the piece of chicken. They branded the chicken as “ruthless chicken.”
“Chi gou ri” (赤狗日) - 3rd Day
The 3rd Day of Chinese New Year is known as “Chi gou ri,” literally translated “Red Dog Day.” According to tradition, the “Red Dog” is the “God of Blazing Wrath" (熛怒之神) and whoever encounters or offends him will have bad luck.
The Chinese folks commonly refer to the 3rd Day as “Chi kou” (赤口) or “Red Mouth.” It is considered an unlucky day to go visiting relatives and friends because the visit might end up in quarrels or troubles.
Also, the Chinese character “chi” (赤) has the implied meaning of “poverty” (赤贫). Thus, there is the belief that offending the “Red Dog” on the 3rd Day will result in financial hardship.
“Renri” (人日) - 7th Day
The 7th Day of the New Year is called “renri”, literally means “Human Day”.
According to Questions and Answers on Rites & Customs (答問禮俗說) written by Dong Xun in Jin Dynasty, human beings were created on the day that later came to be known as “renri”. In other words, the 7th Day of the New Year is the common ‘birthday’ for every one of us.
A must-have celebration on this day is the Prosperity Toss “Lo Hei”, mentioned earlier.
“Bai Tian Gong” (拜天公) - 9th Day
“Bai Tian Gong” means “praying to the Heaven God.” The Heaven God refers to the Jade Emperor, who is the ruler of Heaven in Taoist mythology. The Chinese common folks address the Jade Emperor as “Tian Gong.”
This worship is held on the 9th day of the Chinese New Year and is mainly practised by the Hokkiens. There are two legends relating to the origins of this practice.
Legend 1 - During the Ming Dynasty, the coastlines of China were often raided by Wokou (倭寇) (literally translates as ‘Japanese pirates’). There was one Chinese New Year when the Wokou plundered the coastal region of Hokkien. While fleeing for their lives, the villagers prayed to Tian Gong for protection because the pirates were hot on their heels. They suddenly come across a field of sugarcanes where they hid themselves.
After the Wokou left, the villagers returned to their homes. This day was the 9th day of the Lunar New Year. Since then, the Hokkiens offered thanksgiving prayers to Tian Gong on this particular day of the Chinese New Year.
Besides the usual offerings (such as roasted pig, duck, chicken, fish, prawns, fruits, joss-sticks, mock gold paper, etc), sugarcane stalks tied together with red ribbons are always included as remembrance of the protection provided by the sugarcanes.
Legend 2 - In ancient days, army troops have to pass many places before reaching the battlefield. A general, by the surname of Meng, has the ability to speak the local Chinese dialects after drinking water from that particular region. Unfortunately, when he was in Hokkien, his attendant wrongly gave him water from some other places. Thus, he was unable to communicate with the Hokkien people. As a result, he mistook the Hokkiens as non-Han Chinese and started killing them.
It was only on the 9th day of the Chinese New Year that General Meng managed to drink the local water after the supply of water from other regions has exhausted. Being able to communicate in Hokkien, he realised the grave mistake and ordered the killing to be stopped.
Grateful to Heaven for the blessings, the Hokkiens practised ‘bai tian gong’ on the 9th day of every Chinese New Year. The birthday of Tian Gong, the Jade Emperor, is also said to fall on this particular day.
Yuan Xiao Jie (元宵节) - 15th Day
The 15th day of the New Year is called Yuan Xiao Jie (元宵节), Shang Yuan Jie (上元节), Lantern Festival, or Chap Goh Mei. Eating yuan xiao (glutinous rice balls) and admiring lanterns and guessing lantern riddles are standard features of this day.
For most restaurants in Singapore, this will also be the last day for “Lo Hei”.
Yuan Xiao Jie often marks the end of the Chinese New Year festivities.
Business Re-Opening Day
Most offices will start work after the Public Holidays for Chinese New Year ended. However, for some small companies, an auspicious date is chosen to re-open business. This is to ensure a good start for the new year.
Above are just some of the traditions and customs that I have seen or heard during my younger days. Lots of Chinese traditions have either been lost over the years or no longer observed in the present days. The younger generations tend to think traditions as being old-fashioned or superstitious.