GENERALLY speaking, every nation has some festival that they consider more important than others. To the Chinese, the lunar New Year is such a festival. For thousands of years the Chinese have considered the New Year the most festive season on their calendar.
Though the Chinese officially adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1912, the solar new year on January 1 is by no means as popular as the lunar new year. For instance, on the solar new year most firms and offices have only one day off, but during the lunar New Year festival they are closed for three or four days, some even up to a week. The Chinese lunar new year falls on the first new moon after the sun enters the zodiacal house of Aquarius, which may be anytime from January 21 to February 19.
Preparations for the FestivalThe Chinese enthusiasm for this celebration exceeds even that displayed by Westerners toward Christmas. People begin to prepare for it a month in advance. Even families of small means spend much money to make purchases that are considered necessary for the celebration. Since the emphasis is on newness, people like to buy new clothes. In Hong Kong people have the custom of buying new shoes, and all the shoe shops do a roaring trade during the week before the new year.
An important preparatory date for the celebration is December 24 of the lunar calendar. Many Chinese believe that on this day the Kitchen God goes back to heaven to render a report to the Jade Emperor, who is believed responsible for rewards and punishment. Since the god in charge of the kitchen is believed to be an envoy from the Jade Emperor, people want to get on his good side, hoping he will hide their bad deeds and only speak about the good deeds when he makes his report. So, in order to get his favor, they clean his shrine over the stove thoroughly and offer him cakes and candies. Some even burn paper money to help the Kitchen God with his traveling expense or burn a paper horse for him to ride on. Others go a step farther. Feeling that it is not safe enough just to bribe the Kitchen God, they try to get the god drunk to make sure he does not give a bad report on them. They do this by dipping a portrait of the Kitchen God in wine. At midnight they send him off with a burst of firecrackers. They desire that he “send a good report to heaven and herald peace to the earth.”
During the few days before the new year, the markets are more crowded than usual as everyone is buying extra food for the special meal and for the New Year holidays, during which time the markets are closed. People also like to buy flowers for the festive season. It is the time for the narcissus to bloom, so you will see many hawkers selling narcissus bulbs in the market. Peach blossoms and miniature mandarin trees are also very popular. The color seen most at this time of the year is bright red, which is considered a happy color.
The FestivalAt midnight firecrackers are set off everywhere, welcoming in the new year. During the following days the sound of firecrackers is almost constant. However, in 1968 the people in Hong Kong enjoyed probably their first quiet New Year. The government banned firecrackers, since the local communists had been using the gunpowder in firecrackers to make bombs.
Besides being a time for family reunions, New Year is also a time to visit friends and relatives. On the first and second days of the new year, whole families can be seen going from place to place visiting. In addition to gifts, they carry a generous supply of red packets with varying amounts of money in them to distribute to children. Understandably, these red packets are very popular with children, as this provides them with a little money to buy candies and toys. In theory, any unmarried person is entitled to receive red packets, but in practice very few single grown-ups accept them.
When visitors arrive they are offered sweetmeats and melon seeds. Sometimes they are also invited to drink some sweet juice and have some New Year cakes. Though such hospitality is greatly enjoyed by children, the grown-ups often view it with less enthusiasm. After feasting on such an abundance of rich food for a few days, people frequently suffer from indigestion.
According to custom, people avoid visiting on the third day of the new year, for they believe that doing so will cause them to quarrel with their friends throughout the year. Though many no longer believe this, most still abide by the custom, for it gives them a chance to rest a bit after two busy days of visiting.
The seventh day of the new year is considered an important day. It is called “Everybody’s Birthday.” According to ancient custom, the first day of the new year is considered the rooster’s birthday, the second day the dog’s, followed by the birthday of the pigs, goats, cattle, horses, with the seventh day assigned to humans.
The Cantonese customarily gather together for another family meal on this seventh day. Thus ends the first phase of the New Year celebration. Though in the past the celebration would go on till the fifteenth day, the busy life people lead nowadays seldom allows them to continue it that long. In fact, many shops are open for business on the fourth day.
In addition to assigning a general birthday to each of the above-mentioned animals, the Chinese also use twelve different animals to represent their years. These are the rats, cattle, tigers, rabbits, dragons, snakes, horses, rams, monkeys, roosters, dogs and pigs. What year it is is determined by the coupling of two sets of Chinese numerals, one consisting of twelve figures, the other ten. According to this calculation, 1969 was the year of the roosters and 1970 is the year of the dogs.
Fortune-tellers like to make conjectures according to these various animals as to whether blessings or evil will befall a certain year. The year 1967 was the year of the rams and was supposed to be a very propitious year, yet that year Hong Kong experienced the worst riots in its history.
Emphasis on Money and Good FortuneHere in Hong Kong the most popular New Year greeting is “Kung hei fat choy,” meaning “May you have good fortune and riches.” It seems that people in general consider material riches the greatest success and most desired goal in life. In fact, in many communities in China the fifth day of the new year is considered the day of the Money God. On that day people receive the Money God into their houses with offerings of incense and sacrifices, hoping that this will bring them prosperity in the new year. Years ago, in the city of Shanghai, people used to stay up all night on the eve of the Money God’s return to set off firecrackers to show their welcome.
As one might expect from the popular greeting, many of the New Year customs are closely related to fortune. Some religious persons offer incense at the temples in an effort to obtain good fortune in the year to come. They also offer food there, and then take the food home and give it to the children to eat, believing that this will bring them good fortune. Also, many avoid using any sharp instruments, such as knives and scissors during the New Year festival, thinking that these might cut off their good fortune. Many put up good-luck posters over their doors.
Since the Chinese are so concerned about good fortune during the new year, some religions have taken advantage of the situation. One may see in some houses lanterns hanging over the door and inside of the house. On the lanterns are written various sayings, such as “Be prosperous in all things.” These are bought from Taoist temples or Buddhist shrines. In fact, many temples in Hong Kong hold an auction of lanterns and raise enough funds to support themselves for the rest of the year. Since the lanterns are sold to the highest bidders, some persons pay over a hundred dollars for one, hoping to receive the blessings promised by the sayings on the lantern.
There are also certain taboos during the New Year festival that are closely related to fortune. For example, many persons will not sweep the floor during this festival, since they fear they may sweep good fortune out of their homes. All sweeping is done before New Year’s Eve. Not only that, any who do sweep up dirt are careful in the way they do it; it must be swept inward, lest good fortune be swept from the house. So, from the welcoming of the Money God, to the traditional New Year greeting, and even to the sweeping of the floors, it can be seen that the desire to get rich figures prominently in the Chinese New Year celebration.
A Wrong ImplicationThere is nothing wrong with one’s hoping that the coming year will bring greater happiness. However, does happiness come with riches? The emphasis of the Chinese New Year festival on money and fortune implies this. But the evidence clearly shows that this is not necessarily the case. In fact, while riches are not evil in themselves, the desire to become rich is very harmful. As the reliable Holy Bible points out: “The love of money is a root of all sorts of injurious things, and by reaching out for this love some have been led astray from the faith and have stabbed themselves all over with many pains.”—1 Tim. 6:10.
Thus, the Chinese New Year festival does not direct a person to the true source of happiness. For this source is not money or fortune, but it is the true God in heaven, Jehovah.