Everytime a new year approaches, each country and each nationality will celebrate
the occasion with great enthusiasm and rejoicings according to its own customs, to
bid adieu to the old year and to ring in the new. In accordance with the Chinese Tradition,
the New Year starts on the first day of the first month of a lunar year, which is
called "yuan day", "yuan" meaning "to begin". The day, in popular
parlance, is called "the First Day of the Year" or "the Spring Festival".
There are many stories about how the Chinese celebrate the Spring Festival.
As legend goes, in remote antiquity there was a kind of evil spirit called "Nian",
who would come out looting and hurting the people at the turn of each winter.
To scare away the evil spirit, people burnt stalks of bamboo. When "Nian"
heard the crackle and saw the flames of burning bamboo, it would be so frightened
as to make itself scarce. So people actually scared away "Nian" with this kind
of primitive "firecrackers". When the cold winter is over, spring arrives in
all its beauty. There goes the saying that "a whole year's work depends on a good
start in spring." Hoping for a propitious and happy new year, each family will clean
up the house and put up an antithetical couplet, written on two scrolls of paper to
be pasted one on each side of the door. Dressed up in their best, people will get
together, treat each other to the most delicious foods and exchange auspicious greetings.
This is called "to pay a ceremonial call on New Year's Day". During the Spring
Festival, the first words uttered when meeting others are often "Congratulations
for the New Year!" Many interesting activities such as letting off firecrackers,
dragon lantern dance and lion dance are also held to celebrate the occasion. New Year
cake and dumplings of various kinds, usually made of glutinous rice flour, are
signs of good luck and so indispensable for every household. As early as over 4,000
years ago, in the Western Zhou Dynasty, the custom of holding Spring Festival celebrations
was already with the Chinese. in the Han Dynasty, Sima Qian invented the " Tai
Cu Calendar" (Tai Cu being the name of a period during the reign of
Emperor Wu Di) which set New Year's Day on the first day of the first month of the
lunar year and this traditional festival has continued all the way to the present.
The antithetical couplets stuck on doors at the Spring Festival were originally
called "peach wood charms against evil spirits." According to legend, there
once lived in a beautiful mountain two brothers, Shennai and Yulei by name. The two
brothers, industrious and brave, grew a large grove of peach trees and often helped
the poor to fight against monsters and demons. After their death, the two brothers
became gods in heaven and were ordered by the Supreme Deity of Heaven to see to the
infliction of punishments on evil spirits. The two brothers were held in awe by the
evil spirits so that even the mere sight of the peach trees they had planted would
be enough to scare them away. Hence the peach wood charms. At the New Year, people
would make peach wood charms by writing the names of Shennai and Yulei on two pieces
of peach wood. Another way was to draw their pictures on them. On New Year's Eve,
they would hang them on both sides of the door, hoping to be blessed with peace and
happiness in the new year.
In ancient China, new year celebrations started from New Year's Eve and reached
a second climax on Yuanxiao Festival which falls on the fifteenth day of the
first month of the lunar year. there is a story about the origin of this festival.
During the reign of Emperor Wu Di of the Han Dynasty, there was a palace maid named
Yuanxiao, a pretty, clever and kind-hearted girl. Shut up in the palace all the year
round, she became terribly homesick and very sad. She had somehow won the sympathy
of a minister named Dongfang Shuo. And it was due to the clever story made up by the
latter that Yuanxiao was given an opportunity to see her parents and other family
members again. Dongfang Shuo said to Emperor Wu Di, "The Supreme Deity of Heaven
has ordered the God of Fire to set the city of Changan on fire on the 16th day of
the first month of the lunar year. The only way to forestall the Supreme Deity of
Heaven, who enjoys watching a burning scene, is to let off firecrackers and hang up
red lanterns all over the city while Your Majesty, the consorts, the palace maids
and your subjects all come out for the lantern show. In addition, the God of Fire
loves to eat stuffed dumplings made by Yuanxiao, a maid in the palace. lf we have
Yuanxiao present her dumplings to the God of Fire, he will surely be appeased and
the city of Changan saved." Emperor Wu Di felt greatly relieved, yet still rather
anxious. He ordered that the proposals put forward by Dongfang Shuo be carried out.
Therefore, on the evening of the fifteenth day of the first month of that particular
year, the city of Changan spent the whole night letting off firecrackers and playing
with lanterns. And nothing amiss happened that night. Meanwhile, Yuanxiao took advantage
of the opportunity to have a family reunion. The ensuing year,
Emperor Wu Di ordered again on the same day that red lanterns be hung all over the
city and sweet dumplings made by Yuanxiao be offered at the altar for the Supreme
Deity of Heaven. The rites were thereafter repeated every year, and the fifteenth
day of the first lunar month each year has since become a festival. Since the Yuanxiao
Festival is marked by lantern show and lantern viewing, it is also called the Lahtern
Festival. In ancient times the day was called Shang Yuan Festival as well. On that
particular night, people have their celebrations under the first full moon of the
year which is symbolic of family reunion and a full happy life.
After jubilant celebrations during the Spring Festival, people start a new year with many new hopes and aspirations.