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How Chinese New Year finds its roots in myth and legend

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Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Otherwise known as the Spring Festival in modern China, Chinese New Year is a festival that celebrates the beginning of a new year on the traditional Chinese calendar, an annual 15-day festival celebrated by Chinese communities around the world.

The celebration begins with the new moon that occurs sometime between Jan. 21 and Feb. 20 according to Western calendars and culminates in the Festival of the Lanterns during the following full moon. It also came to be called the Lunar New Year because of this particular adherence to the phases of the moon, which is the basis of the Chinese lunar calendar.

This year, the first day of the Lunar New Year will be tomorrow, Feb. 5, initiating the Year of the Pig.

According to Chinese myths and legends, the festival began in ancient China, a long time ago. A Chinese village once lived in constant terror of a great monster named the Nian that comes every midnight of the final day of each year. The Nian has killed many of the villagers and their children over the years, until one day, brave men and women discovered the monster’s weakness to bright light and the red hue of fire. They also found that its monstrous ears could not stand loud noises made by hitting drums and empty pots.

They established the custom of welcoming each coming year with a loud celebration, dressing in bright red colors, putting up red lanterns, and dazzling fireworks to drive the beast away. Since then, the Nian returned to the village, and the festival came to be known as the Guo Nian, a memorial and celebration of the day the people of China defeated the New Year monster.

Chinese New Year is one of the world’s most prominent and celebrated festivals, and is the cause of the largest annual mass human migration in the world. Even here in the Philippines, where many Chinese-Filipinos have established their roots, it is considered a major holiday. It is celebrated worldwide in regions and countries with significant Chinese migrant populations, including Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, as well as many countries in North America and Europe. The cultural significance of Chinese New Year has also strongly influenced the lunar new year celebrations of China’s neighboring cultures, including the Korean New Year (seol), the Tt of Vietnam, and the Losar of Tibet. 

Traditionally, the Spring Festival is a time to honor deities and ancestors. However, even within China, regional customs and traditions concerning the celebration of the New Year vary widely. Some regions find it traditional to thoroughly clean their houses, believing that by sweeping away any remaining ill-fortune from the previous year, the new year will be filled with incoming good luck. For some, it is traditional to put up red paper decorations on windows and doorways, symbolizing good fortune, wealth, happiness, or longevity. Most other activities adhere to the holiday’s mythological roots: lighting firecrackers, making noise, and putting up red lanterns.

For many, though, the festival is regarded as an occasion for Chinese families to gather for an annual reunion dinner called the Nian Ye Fan, held every New Year’s Eve, traditionally featuring dishes of meat like pork and chicken and as well as fish. Most reunion dinners also include a communal hot pot, as it is believed to signify the coming together of the family members for the meal, as well as specialty meats like duck and Chinese sausage, and seafood like lobster and abalone.

Historically, not much is known about the true origins of the festival. According to the Weatherhead East Asian Institute at Columbia University, the lunar calendar had been in use within agricultural societies in China as far back as the third millennium BCE, and it was believed the new year celebration coincided with the yearly cycle of harvest. 

Many traditions associated with Chinese New Year have developed over the course of such a long history. One example is the belief in the Kitchen God. It was believed that near the end of each year, the Kitchen God, or the god of the hearth, departs to make his report concerning household activities to the Jade Emperor in heaven. To avoid disturbing and possibly offending him, the Chinese waited until he was on his way before they started moving furniture and raising dust during the yearly “spring cleaning”. This tradition, in turn, was believed to be a ritualistic sweeping away of all the evil spirits feared to be lurking in dark corners behind heavy and rarely moved pieces of furniture.

“In the days after the new year, it is common to make pilgrimages to temples, especially nowadays for residents of Hong Kong,” the Weatherhead East Asian Institute wrote.

“Theater groups and acrobatic troupes perform in the streets at marketplaces, on temple grounds, or at large public stadiums. Dragon dances, lion dances, stilt-walking performances, and folk pageantry are still particularly popular. In contemporary China, many parents take their children on outings to the park, the zoo, or the movies.”

On the 15th day of the first lunar month, families and friends conclude the holiday with a small feast and a parade of paper lanterns.

Such customs live on to this day. The traditions and legends from ancient Chinese history play their part in making this holiday so special among the Chinese. And while many households do not outright remember the religious and mythic nature of their traditions, the symbolic ties to family, spirit, and goodwill that is inherent in the celebration lives on. — Bjorn Biel M. Beltran