A bit of pedantry here: some also call it the Lunar New Year, but the Chinese calendar isn’t exactly lunar. It’s lunisolar, which is why the months roughly line up with the Western (solar) months. A fully lunar calendar, like the Muslim one, will have its holidays wandering all over the place on a Western calendar because it goes by its own rhythms.
… what were we talking about again? OH YES. So it’s the day just before the Chinese New Year now, and how remiss it would be of me if I neglected to write something about the biggest day in the Chinese calendar. Here goes!
1. The Music
The thing about Chinese folk music is that, because it’s designed for announcing good or bad news on a grand scale in the village, it has to be loud. And piercing.
And as good news goes, you don’t get much better than ‘we’ve made it through the winter! Warm times be coming again!’ for an agrarian society.
2. The Fruit
Around New Year you will start seeing trees of kumquats like this wherever there are Chinese shops, and of course mandarin oranges are essential to New Year practices.
But with the advance of agricultural techniques and the sheer mad genius of fruit farmers (imagine an old Taiwanese lady in a broad-brimmed straw hat, rubbing thickly gloved hands in glee at her crop), the variety of fruits being grown for gifting purposes has become quite insane.
How insane? We’re talking about white strawberries, 50% larger than the red ones, that taste like pineapples. Or lemon-shaped oranges that taste like mandarins, because the citrus family isn’t quite incestuous enough as it is. Or the Buddha’s hand citron, which looks rather more like Cthulhu’s head, but what do I know about fingers?
The Chinese character for ‘spring’ (春) is a common theme, as is the character for ‘good fortune’ (福). These two are written on rectangular pieces of paper, and are often hung upside down, because ‘upside down’ (倒) and ‘to arrive’ (到) are pronounced the same in Mandarin and many dialects. (You can kind of guess that, since the two characters have the same main radical, 到.) So ‘Spring is Coming’, ‘Fortune is Coming’.
Then there is the red knot, known as the ruyi (如意), which used to be hung on the belts of dashing Chinese gentlemen but now go on walls instead. And paper cuttings. And red things. And other red things. Basically the town literally gets painted or decorated red for New Year.
4. Know the Pace
Right. The thing about New Year is, it’s not actually a single day celebration like New Year’s Day. No – the entire first waxing lunar month, 15 days and nights, is considered part of the festival. In China the holiday lasts for a whole week, and is pretty much the only time many workers in the bustling cities have to go home. Even in Singapore the holiday lasts 3 days – which is as much as we can hope to get.
So spread it out. Normally most of the family visiting activity takes place in the first few days; this one most of us agree on. But every community in China has got its own set of practices. Some are almost universal; others are quite special.
The Day of People (7th Day of the First Month)
The 7th day of the New Year is considered to be the birthday of people, when humans were created. So among the southern Chinese, it’s a big day which often includes eating yusheng.
What is yusheng? This:
Think a huge salad of grated lots of things, sliced lots of other things, crispy things, sliced raw fish, plum sauce, crushed peanuts, sesames, and so on. Then stop thinking, grab your chopsticks and stir it up.
Worshipping the Gods of Heaven (9th day of the First Month)
This is a peculiarly Hokkien (Fujianese) tradition, if I recall correctly, and it is a damned grand thing. On the night of the 8th day, a table is set up, and all sorts of offerings, from rice cakes to steamed buns, fish, chicken, duck, a sucking pig, biscuits, tea, sugar cane etc. etc. are placed on the table before an altar to the God of Heaven. This all happens at night, from what I can remember.
Lantern Festival (15th day of the First Month)
Being the last day of the Chinese New Year, and also the first full moon, the theme of the night – similarly with the Mid-Autumn Festival – is lanterns. Full lanterns, all-out lanterns, trees of lanterns everywhere.
Two other things are done on the 15th; one is to eat (yeah, eating’s a general theme, what do you reckon?) tangyuan (汤圆), which are also known as yuanxiao (元宵). These glutinous rice balls, with or without filling, symbolise wholeness, unity and general deliciousness.
Then there are the word riddles, which are often hung from the lanterns themselves and are thus called ‘lantern riddles’. Nowadays some places hang scores of the lanterns and give prizes to visitors who get many of them, so bon chance!