Chinese people often use “nianweir” (年味儿) to describe the atmosphere of the Spring Festival. The so-called “nianweir”, translated literally as “the taste of the Chinese New Year”, refers to a festive atmosphere created by unique traditions and customs of the Spring Festival. It is a fascinating atmosphere permeating the air. Part of this comes from pleasant smells, including the scents wafting from festive food prepared by families and the smell of firecrackers set off by children. Another part is created by things such as red paper cuts used to decorate doors.
The twelfth month on the lunar calendar is called “layue” (腊月) and the eighth day of layue is known as “labar” (腊八儿). On this day, people of ancient China made sacrifices to their ancestors and deities to wish for bountiful harvests and good luck and both royals and commoners would drink labar porridge.
“Guaqianr” (挂签儿) is a kind of paper cuts used to decorate doors, windows, and courtyards during the Spring Festival. The top of it is glued to things like doors while the bottom is left loose so that it can billow in the air. It is also called “guomenjianr”.
As an old saying goes, “If you get hair cut in the first month of Chinese lunar calendar, your mother’s brother will die”. There were many taboos relating to haircutting in the past. Men would have their hair cut by barbers in the street after the eighth day of layue. But if they failed to get a haircut in layue, they would need to wait until the first lunar month ends.
Nowadays, everyone whose mother has a brother would find time to get a haircut before the Spring Festival no matter how busy he/she is. It is a Chinese tradition.
Other Spring Festival customs include eating dumplings and rice cakes, and posting Spring Festival couplets.
Entering the twelfth month of the Chinese lunar calendar, there would be stalls in the streets and alleys of Beijing writing Spring Festival couplets for people. Spring festival couplets, or also “duizi”, are a must for every family for posting it on the door is how they welcome the spring and wish for a prosperous year. In the past, some people would set up a stall and make money by writing Spring Festival couplets for illiterate people.
The 24th day of layue is a busy day for Chinese families. On this day, people would dress up. Women wear silk flowers that symbolize good luck. Red Spring Festival couplets would be on the two sides of the door, and a福 (fu) in the center, to carry their best wishes for the next year. They would also paste guaqianr inside and outside their houses, and on window sills and wells. Some families would paste red paper cuts, which are usually made by women in the house, on windows.
On the 24th day of layue, after pasting paper cuts on windows and Spring Festival couplets on the door, families would decorate their courtyards. Women would dress up and wear silk flowers that symbolize good luck. Children would help their parents paste red Spring Festival couplets and the Chinese character 福 (fu) on their front doors. They also paste auspicious guaqianr on window sills.
Chinese people prepare meat for the Spring Festival on the 27th day of layue and prepare doughs on the 28th (which is why this day is called “famianri” which literally means the day of preparing dough). It is a tradition in China to avoid fire from the first to the fifth day of the lunar new year. This is why families prepare food for the Spring Festival in advance. Chinese people believe preparing doughs on the 28th day of layue will bring them good fortune in the coming year.
On the 29th day of layue, Chinese families would use the doughs they prepared on the 28th to make steamed buns which will become their staple food from the first to the fifth day of the lunar new year because it is a tradition for Chinese families to avoid fire during this period.
On the 29th day of layue, people in ancient China would hang a grain measurement tool “xiangdou” at one end of a long pole in the front of their houses. However, many Chinese people today no longer know what this is.
In the old days, on the Chinese New Year’s Eve, kids from poor families would go door to door to bring the God of Wealth to families in the neighborhood. To welcome the God of Wealth, household heads would greet the visiting kids and give them some money. The kids who come to the house to bring the God of Wealth need to say something auspicious such as “I wish you wealth and prosperity in the coming year” to the house owner.
Legend has it that, from the Chinese New Year’s Eve to the early morning of the first day of the lunar New Year, gods and deities in the lower heavenly realms would come to the human realm to judge people’s actions in the past year. Therefore, large households would set up “heaven and earth tables” in their courtyards, offering sacrifices, incense and candles in the hope that gods passing by their houses will bless them and bring them happiness in the coming year.
On the Chinese New Year’s Eve, after welcoming the God of Wealth, families would start making “tuanyuan” (which means reunion) dumplings. The fillings of tuanyuan dumplings must be vegetarian because vegetable is called “cai” (菜) in Mandarin Chinese, making a sound similar to the Chinese character 财 (wealth). Popular fillings of tuanyuan dumplings include gluten, tofu, fungus, daylilies, eggs, and cabbage. A Chinese family usually puts a coin in one of the dumplings. Legend has it that whoever gets that will have good luck in the coming year
On the Chinese New Year’s Day, every family would rise early in the morning to step on sesame stalks (踩岁) and offer incense to their deceased ancestors. Adults would raise lanterns and shout “Old ancestors, it’s the Spring Festival. Come home to celebrate with us.” Then, they would peel off the sacred paper on their front door that contains the names of their deceased ancestors, and ignite torches, incense and candles. With adults who hold lanterns leading the way, they would then return to the hall by stepping on the sesame stalks in the courtyard and paste the sacred paper there.
On the Chinese New Year’s Eve, after eating dumplings, children in large families would pay respects to their ancestors and then perform kowtows to their elders, including their grandfather, grandmother, uncles, aunts, brothers, and sisters. The elders would sit on a traditional kang bed-stove and accept greetings from the younger generations one by one, starting with the elder son, then the eldest daughter-in-law, the grandchildren, and the great grandchildren. No matter how many people there are in the family, the kowtow process must not be interrupted. When toddlers perform kowtows, the house is often filled with laughter.
Beijingers attach great importance to visiting relatives and friends during the Spring Festival season. On the second day of the Chinese New Year, married daughters would visit their parents’ homes with their husbands. Nobody asks why or knows how this tradition has come into existence. In the past, married daughters would visit their parents’ homes with gifts and their husbands and servants on the second day of the Chinese New Year. On this day, families with married daughters would welcome sons-in-law in a respectful way.
On the second day of the Chinese New Year, Chinese people, especially businessmen, would offer sacrifice to the God of Wealth. Merchants generally worship the God of Wealth and Martial Arts—Guan Yu. Large stores in Beijing such as the eight largest cloth shops and the eight largest restaurants would offer whole pigs, whole sheep, whole chickens, whole ducks, live red carps, flowers, fruits, steamed buns, and candles to the God of Wealth on this day and pray for wealth and prosperity.
There are many temple fairs in Beijing. People gather at local temples for the worship of gods and immortals. Such temple fairs also attract vendors and performers.
The third day of the Chinese New Year is also known as the chigou day, which literally means “red dog day”. On this day, old Beijingers normally would not visit others. Legend has it that people can lose temper easily and have argument with others on this day. To avoid any possible arguments, many old Beijingers would choose not to leave the house. Some also not allow their children and grandchildren to go out.
On the fourth day of the Chinese New Year, people offer sacrifices to the God of Wealth. In the past, if a business owner wanted to fire an employee, he would not invite the employee to the sacrifice ceremony on this day. The employee would get the signal and leave.
The fifth day of the Chinese New Year is also known as “powur”. On this day, old Beijingers would set off firecrackers and give their homes a thorough cleaning to expel bad luck and make room for the good.
After the fifth day of the Chinese New Year, everything slowly returns to the state before the Chinese New Year’s Eve. It is a very important day for Chinese people because they send off the God of Poverty and invite the God of Wealth on this day.
The eighth day of the Chinese New Year is the Shunxing Festival. Legend has it that on this day the immortals associated with stars would descend to the mortal world. It is also said that the night of the eighth day has the most stars in the sky for the whole year. After the night falls, the older members of the family would take the opportunity to teach the little ones about horoscopes. However, it is freezing cold and the family normally would not stay long outside the house. Summer is a much better for learning horoscopes. On the eighth day of the Chinese New Year, the older members of the family would read the names of the stars listed on a piece of paper from an incense and candle shop to the children. The star gods worship ceremony on Shunxing Festival must be held in the courtyard at night.
The eleventh day of the first month on the lunar calendar is known as the zixu day. On this day, fathers traditionally invite their sons-in-law for lunch or dinner. They would eat leftovers from the birthday celebration of the Jade Emperor on the tenth day of the Chinese New Year. It is said if a farmer treats his sons-in-law on this, he would have a good harvest later that year.
The thirteenth day of the Chinese New Year is believed to be the Birthday of the Lantern God. On this day, Chinese people would light up a lantern in their stove. In fact, they are testing their lanterns for the Lantern Festival which falls on the fifteenth day of the first lunar month.
Around the fourteenth day, lanterns would be hung on both sides of the streets in Beijing. Store owners would set up lantern stalls in front of their own stores and test the brightness of their lanterns. Beautiful pictures are painted on the lanterns to attract viewers.
Chinese people visit temple fairs during the first month on the lunar calendar. Temple fairs are traditional gatherings in Beijing. They are religious events.
During the Ming Dynasty, the Lantern Festival in Beijing lasted ten days from the eighth day (on which day Beijingers hung lanterns in front of their houses or stores) to the seventeenth day of the first month on the lunar calendar (on which day the lanterns were removed). During the Lantern Festival, many Beijingers would visit Dengshikou to shop and view beautiful lanterns, including revolving lanterns and lanterns made of gauze, paper, glass, horns of rams and Akebia quinata. There were also parades during the Lantern Festival.
Legend has it that in the Tang Dynasty, the Dragon King made a mistake and drowned many people in Chang’an. The Jade Emperor ordered Wei Zheng to kill the Dragon King. The ghost of the Dragon King haunted the palace every night, and the Emperor, Li Shimin, was frightened. His officials told him that they should hold a ceremony to dispel the ghost of the Dragon King. This is why Chinese people perform dragon dance during the Lantern Festival.
There is an ancient Chinese superstition. Wedding during the first lunar month is bad for younger generations in the family. Therefore, few couples get married in the first month. The families of the couples would negotiate about many details of the wedding. But one thing is certain: no families would allow their children to defy this taboo.