Every year between January 21st and February 20th there is a celebration lasting a fortnight and this year is no exception. The dates may change year upon year but the Spring Festival traditions have remained the same for centuries and this year, the year of the Earth Dog, on the 16th February, millions will celebrate new beginnings with the Chinese New Year!
The first day of Lunar New Year (as many Asian countries refer to it) was my first day in China and the sky was alight like a lantern as we were coming to land at the airport. Firework displays of every size and description rained over the city as an aeroplane full of exhilarated passengers stared, transfixed, at the windowpanes awaiting an excited (yet slightly anxious) arrival into China’s capital, the Forbidden City, Beijing.
Customs and traditions
Whether you’re superstitious or a little more cynical, it’s always best to adapt and embrace the culture you’re visiting. So if you’re planning a tour to China in time for the celebrations, then there are some traditions and customs which I, culturally naïve to Chinese New Year at the time, would love to have been apprised of…
Put the duster down!
Clean your apartment or hotel room before New Year’s Eve because no sweeping or cleaning of any kind should be done during the Spring Festival celebrations. To sweep dirt out of your front door will sweep your fortune and good luck out, leaving space for only bad luck. To sweep across your floor will sweep one of your family members away for the year (metaphorically, of course!).
When the clock strikes midnight…
It’s rumoured that if you open all of your windows and doors at precisely midnight on the eve of the New Year, it will allow the old year to drift out and the new year to calmly make its way into your welcoming home.
Keep the ghost stories at bay
A fan of ghost stories? It’s a no from me. But it’s believed to be very unlucky to talk of ghosts, death and dying during this transitional period between years. This extends further than you think though – it’s unlucky to utter words that sound like those in ghost stories!
I’ll give you an example: I was told quite sternly not to wear my new shoes throughout New Year’s for my own benefit. This is because shoes in Chinese (xié) sounds and is spelt the same as evil in Chinese (xié). Even homonyms of unlucky words should be avoided!
Symbolic dos and don’ts
Asian cultures, particularly China in my experience, are full of symbolism and I found these as magical as much as I did confusing. Bring small orange and mandarin trees into your home and you will gain riches and wealth in the New Year. Steer clear of knives and scissors or you’ll cut away the good luck from your day. Cry on New Year’s Day and you will cry for the year, borrow on New Year’s Eve and you will be destined to borrow all year. Personally, I won’t pretend to fully understand it. I will, however, embrace and respect it.
Welcome all things red
One thing to remember at this time of year is that red is good. The colour red will bring you luck, it will bring you happiness and it will bring you prosperity (hey, it might even bring you money!). Red envelopes, known nationally as ‘Lai See’, are handed around and exchanged in their billions in China on this festival fortnight and will most often contain ¥1 bills. Friends and family hand them out in abundance and it’s considered to bestow wealth upon the receiver. Fortunately, it’s also considered rude not to accept this!
Fireworks! Fireworks! Fireworks!
Lastly, expect fireworks. Lots of fireworks! But let’s be honest, in the country where fireworks were invented some two thousand years ago, would you expect anything less than the best?
China in a nutshell
There’s a hustle and bustle about China that can’t be emulated anywhere else. In a city like Beijing, as busy as it is immense, there’s always a sense of friendliness and openness by the Chinese people, which is only magnified over the Spring Festival period. You’re almost instantaneously welcomed to join the community spirit and immerse yourself in the traditions that, just yesterday, you knew nothing about.
My first experience in China was in the year of the Dragon and I must have participated in every unlucky taboo I’ve mentioned so far, inexperienced to the cultural faux pas I was making. However, I must have done something that fortnight to appease the traditions and superstitions of China because as I stood there in Beijing taking part in the celebrations, I certainly felt lucky.