Of Firecrackers, Mystical Monsters, and Auspices

The lunar new year, or commonly known as Chinese New Year, is the biggest holiday in Chinese culture. Celebrated since the Shang dynasty (1600 BCE), it’s a 15-day festival that starts on the new moon and ends on the full moon of the first lunar month.  And if you are near any Chinatown, you will experience the festive sights and sounds as people prepare for the coming year.  Firecrackers, crimson spring couplets, sweet cakes, along with red and gold decorations are part of the celebratory theme.


The Legend of Nian

The ancient origins of Chinese New Year started with a mystical creature, a half-lion monster known as “Nian” which reigned terror upon the people at the end of every winter.  The monster besieged merciless attacks upon livestock and sometimes, unattended young children.  Everyone dreaded the end of winter.  An old man arrived one day and announced that he will drive away this monster.  The villagers, though skeptical, were  tired of living in fear and went along with his plan. He prepared firecrackers and wrote blessings on red paper which he placed onto every door of each home.  When Nian arrived, the villagers promptly lit all the firecrackers, one household after another.   Within moments the entire town was crackling and bursting with tremendous light and noise.  The beast shellshocked by the firecrackers and red hues, fled and never returned.  From that day onward, the Chinese celebrated each lunar new year with joy, abundance, and plenty of firecrackers and red color.

Chinese New Year Do’s and Dont’s

While it’s a celebration of family reunions and welcoming of spring, there are many traditions and superstitions to make sure the coming year is lucky.  For those who have not been schooled in the customs of Chinese New Year, we offer a rudimentary guide to help you usher an auspicious beginning:
  • It’s customary and polite to offer an auspicious greeting.  The common one is:  “Gong Xi Fa Cai”, which means wishing you prosperity.  Or one can always stick to “Xin Nian Kuai Le” - Happy New Year.
  • Offer sweet treats to your guests  - candied nuts, fruit, sesame crackers, and sticky rice cakes are popular in Chinese homes.
  • Wear something new, bright, and preferably red.  Black or white clothing are no-no’s, as they are colors for funerals.
  • If you visit someone during this time of the year, make sure you bring a basket of mandarins, or some delicious treats, preferably in red or gold wrappings.
  • If you are married, be prepared to dole out red envelopes (with cash inside) to children or the younger unmarried members.  We call this lucky money.
  • Ideally you should have already spring-cleaned your home prior to the new year.  Cleaning on new year's day might sweep away good fortune.  
  • Get your haircut before the new year. cutting your hair during the first days of new year can "snip away" good luck.

Superstitions or not, these traditions are observed with the intention of cultivating peace and prosperity.  And there's no greater joy in celebrating that with your family and loved ones.

Wishing you good health, much joy,
and great prosperity for the new year!

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