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The Meaning of Chinese New Year
Gong Hay Fat Choy

For the Chinese, 2000 is not only the year of the Dragon, but the 4,698th year of their lunar calendar. (This 2000 year is 5761 according to the Jewish calendar).

Based on the Chinese sixty year calendar, 2000 is a yang energy year. The current sixty year cycle will end in 2055. February 5 marks the beginning of spring as the first in 24 solar periods observed.

In accordance with ancient tradition, each year is divided into twelve or thirteen lunar cycles with each new moon having a title such as, "bitter moon, the 12th month" or "holiday moon, the first month or New Year Moon."

Likewise, there exists an ancient tradition known as the "three thousand rules of behavior" which regulates the behavior of the people according to the day of the month.

(Just as the "Old Farmer's Almanac" which can be purchased at almost any store in America today illuminates everything from the best days to get a haircut to crop planting times, so do the Chinese have the "Tung Shu" which not only is an almanac but includes tips on everything from fortune-telling to etiquette in writing letters and invitations.

Although, many of the daily rites and lesser festivals may go unobserved, there are six "Great Festivals" of the year which nearly every Chinese (who is not bedridden) will observe.

There are the "Three Festivals of the Living" and the "Three Festivals of the Dead." Among the former and the chief of all these celebrations is the New Year Festival. This is the time that every man lays aside his work for as long as he can afford leisure. Instead of his usual frugality, this is a time of feasting. Reunion of family takes the bitterness from habitual separation. Amusement and happiness, like a bright red thread, colors the normal pattern of daily lives.

Socially, the New Year signifies reunion. Morally, it represents the rebirth of mortality to immortality, resurrection, the time of Yin and Yang ruling in harmony, the time when every living creature beats faster in response to budding forces.

Materially, it stands for rejuvenation-both in the home and the marketplace. Men strive to pay off old debts in money and loyalty and start a clean sheet of happiness and greater success.

According to the Chinese Farmer's solar calendar Spring begins about six weeks after the date recognized by the western (Gregorian) calendar around the fifth of February. New Year's Day may actually fall on either side of this date as, from 104 BC, it has been reckoned to fall on the day of the first new moon after the sun enters the constellation Aquarius, which is not before the 21st of January or after February 19th.

In 2000, the first day of the New Year was February 5, although due to the constraints of modern society it will celebrated in some US Chinatowns on Sunday the 20th.

Among old fashioned Chinese the celebration of the "holiday moon" is a festive ritual based on ancient and solemn customs. At midnight on the last night of the dying year (two weeks of preparation have already taken place), members of a (kungfu) family present New Year wishes to one another. The master and the mistress of the house seat themselves, rigid as Buddhas, on two stiff chairs in the reception hall where all those "living under the roof" appear and kowtow before them.

The order of seniority is strictly observed even in minor matters of etiquette. From the oldest to the youngest, men before women, boys before girls, all come forth dressed in their best and brightest robes and kowtow three times with the forehead touching the ground in a sign of obedience for the coming year.

In this way we see the "first born" (dai-sihing) of a masters disciples are shown respect because they have "a birthright in ancestral worship, in the division of property, and in the direction of the art after the Master's demise.

Between the hours of three and five on the same morning, when no cock has crowed, cypress and pine branches are (again) spread in the courtyard and the Master of the school (house) goes out to break the seals on the front gates which were carefully closed and sealed on the night before. This is called "opening the door of fortune." It is said there exists seventy two evil influences which beset the unguarded door. Therefore, he utters some lucky phrase, like, "May the New Year
bring us riches."

Now, all who were sleeping awake by 5am and the master performs three rites in honor of Heaven and Earth, the Ancestors and the household spirits.

Spirit Tablet of Heaven and Earth

The spirit tablet of "Heaven and Earth" (found in every home) is brought forth and placed in the courtyard under the open clear sky, and the thanks for past protection (which was offered on New Year's Eve) are repeated for further protection in the New Year. This Spirit Tablet is usually worshipped by the Master on the first and fifteenth of every month as well as important occasions such as weddings, births of sons, birthday celebrations, and new building dedications.

The past Ancestors too receive offerings and prayers for continued blessing and protection. This second service is held in the guest hall where the pedigree scroll, carefully wrapped and put away in ordinary times, is hung, and the spirit tablets of the forefathers (previous masters) unto the fifth generation are brought with due ceremony and placed in their proper places. Tablets of Ancestors beyond the fifth generation are either kept in an ancestral temple or reverently burned (in cases where they are too numerous to preserve).

For the next two weeks, the "Ancestral Spirits" are supposed to remain in the house and are daily served with food and drink, while hot towels are given them to wipe their shadowy faces just as if they were still mortal. The offerings upon the altar include five kinds of food, five cups of wine, and five cups of tea. Ten pairs of chopsticks are placed upon the altar for their use as well, and a calendar so that the dead may follow the feasts and festivals in the New Year to come. (Ancient Ancestral Worship included impersonators of the dead relatives).

Among the many household gods (who remain in the house until the fourth day) is Tsao Wang, the Kitchen God. He is the connecting link between God, Man, the Family and the home. He is the oldest and most important of the house gods. Incense is not only burned before him on the great festival days but on the first and fifteenth of every month as well.

At the propitious hour of his departure, sweets of all kinds are offered and honey is smeared across his lips so that he will not talk too freely in the other world, and what he does say will be sweet and flattering, telling only of the family's good deeds, not their shortcomings. In some homes, opium was smeared instead of sugar to make him drowsy so that when he arrived at the throne of the Jade Emperor in Heaven, he would be tipsy and good humored instead of critical.

Afterwards, Tsao Wang's portrait is carried out in the main courtyard in a miniature sedan chair and placed between candles and incense. Bows are made and prayers offered and then it is set alight and Tsao Wang starts skyward in a chariot of fire. Straw is thrown into the fire for his horse to eat and tea is poured on the ground for the horse to drink. Peas and beans are thrown on the rooftop of the kitchen to imitate his departing steps and the clatter of the horse's hoofs. His departure is now completed by a series of firecracker explosions.

Now on New Years day after the Ancestral Spirit offerings, Tsao Wang, is politely welcomed back to his shrine in the kitchen where he finds a new portrait of himself set up in a new reliquary. Thus he is officially installed again as caretaker of the home with much burning of incense and firecrackers. A proverb says, "as breath to men, so is incense to the gods."

The first day of the New Year is usually spent at home as an occasion of reunion. It is a time of sharing the pleasures and duties of the holiday moon. The proverb, "every family apart" indicates people are to remain with their own kith or kin.

On the second day of the New Year, the well, which was closed 48 hours before, must be reopened with a prayer to the Spirit who guards it. When the first bucket of water is drawn up, candles are lit, incense burned and firecrackers exploded.

On the third day, a still more important rite is performed to Tsai Shen, the God of Wealth. Like the Kitchen God, his picture is found in nearly every home or shop and yearly it is burned and replaced with a new one when his table is filled the pork, duck and fresh carp fish. (Yu, the word for fish is a homonym of "yu" which also means surplus, therefore the fish has become a symbol for wealth).

In old times, children went door to door selling new pictures of Tsai Shen for one copper. His image is seen under the money tree of which branches are inexhaustible strings of cash and the fruits are ingots of gold which could be obtained by simply shaking them down. He is seen in the picture in the guise of a visitor accompanied by a crowd of attendants laden with all the treasures that the hearts of men, women and children could desire.

After the third day of the New Year, people begin to go out again, and the empty streets begin to see the peddlers reappear. However, old custom keeps the traditionalist indoors until the fifth day of the New Moon.

On the fifth day, the home altar with its cakes, fruits, talismans, red candles and incense is dismantled. In accordance with the saying, "the holidays are broken", all decorations are taken down and every house is swept and cleaned.

Shops which can no longer afford to be closed, reopen early in the morning with a grand fanfare of firecrackers and more libations of wine and food offerings to Tsai Shen. Often on this day, the shops do not close their doors for the entire day in fear that he may go by without bringing fortune in to them.

Now, on the fifth day, every man pays a call upon relatives and friends, taking care when he leaves home for the first time in the New Year to choose a lucky spot for his first footstep. To slip or fall on going out would bring misfortune on his own house and on those he is about to visit. Equally important is the first person he meets. A women is unlucky and a priest (death) is worse!

When the Master's list is too long to personally visit everyone on it, he may send out a student or servant carrying his visiting card - red strips of paper about nine inches long and three inches wide inscribed with his name and some phrase or talisman - to those of inferior rank.

But to the Master, the teacher, the blood relatives and his wife's parents every man had to go himself and present New Year wishes. In the old days, all but the oldest generation of males were also expected to make a round of greeting to their neighbors, the representatives of each family entering the courtyard of the other and kowtowing themselves before the elders who remained at home to receive visitors.

The kowtow was accompanied by expressions of good wishes such as, "Bai Nien, Greeting the New Year", "ChingAn, Wishing you Peace" or "Kung Hei Fat Choy, Greetings of riches in the New Year."
It is very important that only "good words" be spoken at New Year time. A placard may be placed over the front door which reads, "Heaven and Earth, Yang and Yin, all things without danger from unlucky words", in an effort to ward off evil.

Even in writing the first letter on New Year's day, one is cautioned to begin it with the character for wealth, happiness or long life, knowing that carelessness may bring bad luck for the whole year.

New Year taboos are too numerous to illustrate and include, "no loss of money must be referred to", "to gamble directly after a bath is to invite bad luck", "never thread a needle on the 7th or 8th day", "never start a journey on the 7th, 17th, or 27th and never return home on the 8th, 18th, or 28th."

But, the Chinese New Year is far from a burden of rites and observances. On the contrary, it is a time of amusement and pleasure. Because most Chinese work so hard, leisure time itself is an amusement and people are content to spend a portion of their vacation sitting around in their best clothes on stiff chairs doing nothing.

Nonetheless, three great activities rule the month; feasting, gambling and theatre going. "No one has an empty mouth", "eat good things", and "when eating one's own, he must not eat to fullness, but when feasting with another, he stuffs till the tears run" are the New Year's proverbs.

Evil spirits are particularly mischievous around the New Year and so processions of priests in bright robes going from house to house to drive away evil spirits are a feature of the holiday.

A Taoist priest might perform such an exorcism as follows: "Attired in a red robe, blue stockings and a black cap, the exorcist stands with a sword made of peach wood in his hand, before a temporary altar on which are burning tapers and incense sticks. Placing the sword upon the altar, he then prepares a mystic scroll. This is burned and the ashes put into a cup containing spring water. The exorcist then takes the sword in his right hand, raises the cup in his left and utters the prayer: 'God of Heaven and Earth! Invest me with the healing seal that I may eject from this house all sorts of evil spirits'. He then calls to the demons, "As quick as lightning depart from this dwelling." He then takes a bunch of willow branches which he dips into the cup and sprinkles the east, west, north, and south corners of the house. This done, he fills his mouth with the water of exorcism which he expectorates toward the east wall afterwards calling aloud, "Kill the green evil spirits which come from unlucky stars or let them be driven far away." At each comer of the house and the center, he repeats the ceremony calling on it's directional influence, ie. Kill the white evil spirits of the west, Kill the black evil spirits of the north, etc. Attendants now beat drums and gongs and in the midst, the exorcist screams, "Evil spirits of the East, get back to the East, Evil spirits of the West get back to the West, etc. I command you to return thither. Let all evil spirits return to the points on the compass where they belong. Let them vanish immediately.

Next, he goes to the door of the house and making some mystical passes with his "magic sword" in the air, he prevents their return, congratulates the householders of their expulsion of the ghosts and receives his fee. Many such exorcisms exist and many more prophecies are observed during this time of the New Year.

The next holiday moon feast observed was Li Chun, the beginning of Spring. A procession of a Spring Ox was the principal feature of this ceremony, the ox being led to slaughter. After sometime, however, economy dictated a paper ox effigy be substituted for the live ox and the colors associated with the ox foretold for those unable to read the New Year calendar what agricultural predictions were made. In example, if the head of the ox were painted yellow, it meant great heat in the summer or red foretold a draught.

Brought in procession before the local magistrate, the ox was then beaten and prodded to stimulate it to work. This was done with bamboo poles decorated with strips of colored paper at the exact hour when spring began. This auspicious moment was determined by turning a large hollow bamboo upright in the ground, with chicken feathers in it. As the feathers fly upward at the moment of the first breeze, (and at the moment when the ox was beaten), spring had arrived.
The ceremony ended by burning the effigy at an altar erected to the God of Agriculture, while the crowd attempts to recover any of the charred embers as good luck talismans. (In the days of the live ox sacrifice, the officials all shared in an ox feast). Subsequently, everyone went home and changed their winter furs for spring clothing. Hence, the saying, "The ox at Li Chun escorts the cold away".

The fifteenth day of the first month brings an official ending to the New Year holidays in the form of the Lantern Festival or the Feast of the First Full Moon.

The origin of this festival dates two thousand years back to the Han Dynasty when householders hung lanterns over their doors and put up fir branches to attract prosperity and longevity.

The Lantern Festival begins as a ceremonial worship from the 13th to the 16th of the New Moon at the Temple of the First Cause. At this time the streets have a carnival atmosphere of pure enjoyment. Chien Lung Emperor of the Ching Dynasty gave large parties at the Summer Palace where each of the hundreds of pavilions were outlined with lanterns, every canal afloat with lighted boats, every tree hung with flaming fruits, and the miles of marble balustrades were decorated with silk cups of glowing lights.

On the evening of the fifteenth, it was customary for members of a clan to dine together and afterwards, the large lantern which had been hung in front of the Ancestral Altar on New Year's day was sold to the highest bidder.

The Lantern Festival is largely a childrens time as they are taught specials plays and pantomines and dress up in masks and false beards to wander the streets performing their lantern dances and carrying a myriad of paper lanterns in the shapes of crabs, dragon flies, birds and more.

"Under the heavens there are no unending feasts," says the proverb, so after the third day of the Feasts of Lanterns, people settle down to another New Year.

Now the holidays are really over, but the sacrificial duties of the "holiday moon" are not, and so on the 18th day, the calender commands that men should observe the "Star Festival."
The planets and stars are the abode of sainted Heroes who not only rule the skies but also strongly influence the course of human destinies. Sacrifice is now due to these spirits and in the third watch of the night, when all the stars are shining, an altar table is spread in the courtyard facing north. Upon it are placed a portrait of the "Star Gods" and one of the Chinese zodiac and a sealed envelope containing a chart of the Lucky and Unlucky Stars, such as the Gods of Literature and Longevity.

The Master of the house first worships the heavenly hosts as a group and then makes a special prayer to the star which presided over his birth. He does this on his birthday too, but also at this time, because the New Year is said to the birthday of every Chinese.

The food offering is composed of three bowls of rice balls cooked in sugar and flour. As the Master makes his bows, 108 small lamps are lighted before the star tablets. Lasting only a few minutes, each son of the house, comes forth and makes obeisance to his own star by relighting three lamps and according to the brightness of the flame he discerns good or bad luck for the year.

The very next day, the 19th, is known as the "Rats Wedding Day", when people are supposed to go to bed early, lest they disturb the rodents and the latter revenge themselves by being a pest in the house for the rest of the year.

But more importantly on the 19th is the "Meeting of the Hundred Gods." This is the day when Kuan-Ti and his associate Gods all gather together and make a group visit to the Yu Huang, Jade Emperor, Taoist Lord of Heaven. The ceremony is similar to the host of others with food offerings and bonfires of paper money being sacrificed before the images of these deities.

Today, many "young minded" people may not observe the old-customs as before (not only in China). However, an understanding of such customs will help in understanding those "old-fashioned" people and the traditions they carry with them.

Hence, the proverb, "The past is clear as a mirror, the future as dark as lacquer, if you wish to know the road ahead, inquire of those who have traveled it."

Each month (moon) of the Chinese year, has similar observances to the "holiday moon." As stated, the New Year moon is the most festive and important.

Copyright © 1997, Roger D. Hagood

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Copyright © 2010-2014, Roger D. Hagood.  All Rights Reserved Worldwide.