Lunar New Year`s Eve. the last day of the old year. is one of China`s most important traditional holidays. Homes are spotless in and out. doors and windows are decorated with brand new Spring Festival couplets. New Year`s pictures. hangings. and images of the Door God. and everyone dresses up in new holiday clothes that are decorated with lucky patterns and auspicious colors.
To the Chinese. New Year`s Eve dinner is more than just enjoying a grand feast. On this day. all Chinese all over the world. no matter how far away from home they are or how busy at work. will be home for dinner.
The elaborate dinner is laden with auspicious food. The names of the dishes express the wish for good luck in the coming year. Most dishes are prepared with uncut or whole ingredients to ensure integrity and perfection. The use of knives is considered unlucky as this could sever the family`s good fortune.
The sumptuous New Year dinners are prepared with the most delicate culinary artistic skill and good wishes to welcome relatives and friends with a choice of festive treats. Today. a growing number of Chinese choose to have reunion dinners at restaurants or invite cooks home to make dinners for them.
Legend has it that long ago during the age of great floods. there was a vicious monster named Nian. which means year. Whenever the thirtieth day of the last lunar month arrived. this monster would rise up out of the sea. killing people and wrecking havoc in their fields and gardens. The people would bar their doors before dark and sit up all night. coming out the next day to greet their neighbors and congratulate them on surviving. Once on the last night of the last month. Nian suddenly burst into a small village. devouring almost all the people who lived there. Only two families emerged unscathed. The first. a newlywed couple. avoided harm because their
celebratory red wedding clothes resembled fire to the monster. so it did not dare to approach them. The other family was unharmed because their children were playing outside setting off noisy firecrackers. and the noise scared the monster away. Ever since. people have worn red clothes. set off firecrackers. and put up red decorations on New Year`s Eve to keep the vicious monster Nian away. Later. according to the legend. the Emperor Star deity struck Nian down with a flaming orb and bound him to a stone column. Only then was there peace in the world. Ever since. people stay up all night and burn incense on New Year`s Eve. entreating the Emperor Star to descend to earth and protect them.
Every year on New Year`s Eve. people paste up images of the Door God on their doors. The Door God. or guardian of the threshold. is a very old deity. In its earliest incarnation. it was embodied in the door itself. The Door God was first portrayed in human form during the Han Dynasty. first as the warrior Cheng Qing. and later as Jing Ke. The door gods of the Northern and Southern Dynasties were named Shen Tu and Yu Lei. During the Tang Dynasty. two great generals named Qin Shubao and Yuchi Jingde were in charge of protecting the officials of the imperial palace. Emperor Tang Taizong (Li Shimin) felt that the generals were working too hard. so he ordered their portraits to be painted and hung beside the palace door to assist them. The two generals thus became associated with the ancient guardians of the threshold. and have been known as door gods ever since. During the Five Dynasties Period. Zhong Kui became the new door god. The Song Dynasty saw the further development of existing guardians and protectors. In addition to door gods. images of the gods of Blessings. Prosperity. and Longevity. as well as the Ten Thousand Deities and the Three-Treasures Buddha. are often hung in living rooms and bedrooms. These guardian deities were thought to protect the household from evil influences and repel demons.
New Year pictures. as their name implies. are made especially to celebrate the Lunar New Year holiday. With the coming of Spring Festival. these pictures appear in households throughout the nation. their bold outlines and vibrant colors adding to the excitement of the holiday season. New Year`s pictures are an ancient Chinese folk art. reflecting the simple and thrifty customs and beliefs of the common people. and embodying their hopes for the future. New Year pictures. like Spring Festival couplets. trace their origins to China`s ancient door gods. After a certain point. however. these pictures were no longer limited to depicting the various protective deities. and became increasingly rich and colorful. Among the common subjects of New Year pictures are ``A Surplus Every Year.`` ``Peace Year After Year.`` ``Blessings from Heaven.`` ``An Abundance of Grain.`` ``Flourishing Livestock.`` and ``Spring Comes with Good Fortune.``
Papercuts made from lucky red paper are often pasted in windows and on doors to celebrate Spring Festival. Papercutting is an extremely popular Chinese folk art. Papercuts usually draw their subject matter from legend. opera. and the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac. Bold and expressive. they depict a range of lucky themes and beautiful dreams. adding color and verve to the celebratory spirit of Spring Festival.
The character ``¸£`` fu means happiness and good fortune. It is as often used as a decoration during Spring Festival. expressing the hope for good fortune and a bright future in the coming year. In order to emphasize the significance of this character. it is often pasted on the door upside down. This is meant to cause visitors to remark. ``Your fu is upside down.`` which is an exact homonym for the auspicious phrase. ``good fortune has arrived.``
In addition to door gods. Spring Festival couplets. New Year pictures. and papercuts. many families also paste up special decorations known as menjian on Lunar New Year`s Eve for good luck. Made out of red or colored paper. these decorations consist of papercuts plus auspicious sayings. with a fringed bottom. Today. instead of the traditional menjian. many people put up ``Chinese knots.`` a type of decoration made out of red cord tied into lucky designs.
Making sacrifices to the ancestors is one of the most important folk customs of Spring Festival. Traditionally. households prepared for New Year`s Eve by bringing their family`s genealogical records. ancestral portraits. and memorial tablets to the ancestral hall. where the altar was prepared with incense and offerings. In some regions. offerings were prepared for the deities of Heaven and Earth as well as for the ancestors. In other areas. obeisance was made to the Jade Emperor (the highest deity in the folk pantheon). and the Queen Mother of the West (wife of the Jade Emperor). The offerings. known as ``offerings to Heaven and Earth.`` consisted of mutton. five types of cooked dishes. five colors of snacks. five bowls of rice. two date cakes. and a large steamed wheat-flour bun. The rite was conducted by the head of the household. After burning three bundles of incense and bowing to the ancestors. prayers were offered for a fruitful harvest in the coming year. Finally. paper images of money were burned. the smoke carrying the household`s prayers and salutations to Heaven. These Spring Festival rituals were a way of wishing the ancestors and deities a Happy New Year.
It was considered imperative to honor the ancestors during Spring Festival. both to remember previous generations and to ensure the continuation of the family line. However. regional differences produced widely differing traditions. In some places. the ancestors were honored before the New Year`s Eve feast. while in others the ceremony was conducted at midnight on New Year`s Eve. In yet other places offerings were made to the ancestors on New Year`s morning. right before opening the door of the family courtyard. In Taiwan. the year`s final offering to the ancestors was made in the afternoon of New Year`s Day. In some regions. offerings were made to the ancestors at home on New Year`s Day. after which the household would travel to the ancestral temple for further ceremonies. In some places. it was customary to conduct the ceremony at the ancestral graveyard. burning incense. making offerings. and bowing to the ancestors. Today. people usually pay their annual respects at the graves of their departed loved ones.
On New Year`s Eve. the house is brightly lit as the whole family stays up all night to see out the old year and see in the new. People do more than just sit around as they wait for the arrival of the new year. There is plenty to eat and drink. including wine. cooked dishes. New Year`s cake. boiled dumplings. fruit. and assorted snacks. and all kinds of games are played. Since it`s nighttime. most of the games are played indoors. Popular games include Go. Chinese chess. card games. and mahjong. Before it gets dark. children ride bamboo horses. spin tops. and play games like ``Eagle Catches Chicken`` and ``Blind Man`s Bluff``. As midnight approaches. the parents prepare the family altar. They then light incense and make offerings to the ancestors and auspicious deities. bringing the New Year`s festivities to their peak. After the ceremony is over. everyone exchanges New Year`s greetings and eats boiled dumplings. It is also traditional to set off fireworks and firecrackers on New Year`s Eve. As it gets closer and closer to midnight. nonstop explosions fills the air and the sky is filled with a sparkling display.
Since the 1980s. it has become extremely popular to watch the annual ``Spring Festival Variety Show`` on television on New Year`s Eve.