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You’re no doubt familiar with the 12 days of Christmas, resplendent with drummers drumming, pipers piping and a partridge in a pear tree. Less well publicized, however, are the 15 days of Chinese New Year, the festival season that stretches from the new moon on New Year’s Day until the full moon on the Lantern Festival.
Most of the traditions associated with the 15 day celebration of Chinese New Year date to ancient China. Here in the United States, it’s less common for public life to shut down for the duration of the holiday season, making the day-by-day observation of Chinese New Year customs rare.
Nonetheless, read on to learn about the daily rhythms of the Spring Festival. Between work presentations and school schedules, neither of which take a break for Chinese New Year, you may find the time to eat vegetarian on the correct day, make tang yuan or coax a smile from your superstitious grandmother.
Day 1: Celebrate New Year’s Day
After the last firecrackers have fizzled out and everyone’s gone to sleep after midnight, morning dawns to welcome the new year. The Chinese believe that New Year’s Day sets the tone for the rest of the year, so it’s generally a quiet affair filled with positive thoughts among adults and good behavior among children. Just as you would call your parents on the Western New Year’s Day, it’s traditional to visit (or call or Skype) your parents and grandparents. At home, New Year’s Day is all about rest and relaxation — there’s no cooking or cleaning allowed and most families eat leftovers or the traditional Buddhist vegetarian dish called jai.
Day 2: Visit Family and Friends
The second day begins a procession of visits to the homes of friends and family. Guest are welcomed with tea and candied sweets from an octagonal Togetherness Tray, hospitality which is reciprocated with red envelopes and small gifts for the household. Traditionally, the second day is when married women return home with their husbands after celebrating New Year’s Eve with their in laws.
Day 3: Stay at Home
Superstition holds that the third day is bad luck for socializing, filled with the potential for quarrels and disagreements among family and friends. While the most superstitious will spend all day at home and out of harm’s way, it’s more common to simply spend the third day relaxing after a fairly intense period of celebration.
Day 4: Worship the Gods
Heavenly spirits like the kitchen god and the god of wealth visit earth on the fourth day. It’s auspicious to prepare a big dinner (served at the stroke of midnight even!) and make offerings of incense, food and spirit money to welcome these deities and ensure a prosperous year ahead.
Day 5: Break Taboos
Known as the Festival of Po Wu, the fifth day celebrates the birthday of the god of wealth and marks the point when many New Year’s taboos can be broken. For instance, it’s safe to sweep and empty the trash again, and many local businesses will reopen. The most superstitious will stay at home on the fifth day, in case the god of wealth comes calling.
Day 6: Send Away the Ghost of Poverty
After welcoming the god of wealth on the fifth day, the sixth day is used to send off the ghost of poverty. It’s a good day to discard old clothes, clean out the garage and discard other rubbish around the house.
Day 7: Celebrate Humans
The seventh day commemorates Nu Wa, the ancient goddess who is believed to have created mankind from yellow clay. On this day, Chinese people eat different healthy foods symbolizing abundance, prosperity and long life, such as qi bao geng (a thick vegetable soup), longevity noodles and yu san (a raw fish salad).
Day 8: Birthday of Rice
The eighth day is used to celebrate rice, the most essential Chinese staple food. Practically speaking, it’s a good time to teach children where their food comes from, as well as the general importance of agriculture. Not a bad day to visit a neighborhood farm or your local farmer’s market.
Day 9: Birthday of the Jade Emperor
The ninth day is the birthday of the Jade Emperor, the supreme deity of Taoism. This event is marked by feasting and offerings in his honor, up to and including the sacrifice of a live chicken. I’ll leave that decision to you.
Days 10 – 12: More Feasting
The 10th through 12th days of Chinese New Year don’t carry much significance. It’s time for more visits among family and friends, along with the associated eating, drinking and merriment.
Day 13: Cleanse!
The first twelve days of Chinese New Year are filled with rich and often greasy foods. Vegetarian dishes like rice and greens are favored on the thirteenth day to help sooth digestive systems. With the Lantern Festival just two days away, the thirteenth day is also a good opportunity to go shopping for lanterns and ingredients for tang yuan.
Day 14: Decorate Lanterns
The fourteenth day is preamble to the next day’s Lantern Festival. Families prepare lanterns and make tang yuan, while dragon and lion dance teams practice for the upcoming festivities.
Day 15: Celebrate the Lantern Festival
The Lantern Festival highlights the fifteenth and final day of Chinese New Year. The night sky is awash with colorful lanterns as families stroll together under the first full moon of the year. In the past, the Lantern Festival was a romantic evening when young lovers would find their matches. Resembling the full moon, tang yuan are the traditional food of the Lantern Festival and symbolize family reunion.
Your turn! How faithfully do you follow the daily celebration of Chinese New Year? I’d love to hear from you in the comments section below!
HT: Photo by Visit Pasadena.