Date: the first day of the first lunar month
Every year when winter is about to end and spring is coming; the Chinese always grandly celebrate the first traditional festival in a year-the Spring Festival (New Year of lunar calendar). It can be called the grandest and most exciting festival for the Chinese, containing a long history and rich cultural connotations.
Spring festival is the beginning of lunar year, commonly called Guo Nian. In the long history of over 2, 000 years, Chinese New Year customs have undergone a developing process of germination, formation, change, and transition.
Pre-Qin period is the germinating time of New Year customs. At that time, people held celebrations after agricultural affairs were finished as a sacrificial activity to thank gods ?estowment." The Book of Songs, records the festive customs at the turn of two years in the period of Western Zhou (1046-771BC), when people offered luscious wind and lamb to gods as reward for their blessing and obligation during the past year and as invocation for favorable weather and bumper harvest in the oncoming year. There was not a fixed date for these celebrations because different states used different calendars. But it's around the time in winter when agriculture was not so busy. It is the embryo of New Year customs in later generations.
New Year customs were finalized in Han Dynasty. After the social tumult at the end of Warring States (475-221BC)and Qin Dynasty, government of Western Han (206BC-AD25) Adopted "Rehabilitation" policy in its early time, Which recovered and developed the social production and restored social order. People were more hopeful about their life and so a series of festive customs got to formed. The adoption of Taichu Calendar stabilized calendar system for a long time, so the first day of the first lunar month as the first day of a year was settled. As a result, god worshipping, sacrificing and celebrating activities that used to be held at different time in late winter or early spring were gradually unified to be held on the first day of the first lunar month. With the development of times, New Year customs on the first day of the first lunar month were getting more and more interesting from Han Dynasty to Southern and Northern dynasties (420-589). People played fireworks, changed Spring Festival couplets, grand tusu wine (ancient wine of China), stayed up all night on New Year's Eve, enjoyed lanterns, etc. Spring festival gradually developed into the most important festival in China.
New Year customs were changed in Tang Dynasty. Tang is a time of economic prosperity and political flourishing as well as frequent intercourse between Chinese and foreign cultures. New Year customs, by and by, came out of the mystic atmosphere of invocation, superstition, and evil prevention, but changed into entertaining and ceremonial celebrations. Crackers on New Year were no longer a means of keeping away ghosts and preventing evil, but were ways of oy and fun. The focus of New Year celebration shifted from god worship to entertainments for people, and to people's own recreation and enjoyment of life. Therefore it is safe to say that only after Tang Dynasty has new year really become a "happy festival and blessing day" for all.
New Year customs were transited in Ming (1368-1644)and Qing dynasties, which were mainly reflected in two aspects. First, their ceremonial and social function increased. On New Year, people visited each other; high officials gave each other their cards or went to beach other's houses. Common people paid attention to reciprocal courtesy, too, presenting gifts and paying New Year visits to one another. Second, their recreational function increased. During the period of New Year, all kinds of recreations were carried out-lion dance, dragon dance, drama playing, story telling, high stilts playing, land boats racing, etc, rich and colorful. Beijingers visited Changdian, Guangzhou people went to flower market, Suzhou people listened to the toll of Hanshan Temple, Shanghai people went to Town God's Temple?ecreations at different places possessed their own characteristics and different entertainments kept coming on, making people dazed and excited. New Year customs at that time fully absorbed Chinese traditional culture, becoming a folk=custom exposition where Chinese customs and traditions that had had thousands of years of history were displayed in a centralized way.
During the period of New Year, which is a traditional festival, Han nationality and most minor nationalities of China hold various celebrations, which mostly feature sacrifice to god or Buddha, memorial sacrifice to ancestors, ridding the old and welcoming and new, embracing joy and receiving fortune, and invocation for a good year. These celebrations are of varied forms and with full national characteristics.
In the past 2, 000and more years, the splendid celebration of New Year prevails in China. It almost penetrates everyone's life and moulds the soul of every Chinese all over the world. Every time when it comes to the end of lunar year, people who are away from home hurry home to be with their families, and interesting new-year customs like staying up for the New Year, making jiaozi, posting New Year couplets, making New Year visits, and many other things have become common habits of all Chinese people. The Spring Festival customs of the Chinese have also radiated to neighboring countries like Vietnam, North Korea, South Korea, Japen, etc. They celebrate New Year in similar ways.
Spring Festival is not just one day but includes many activities in the first lunar month. For the Chinese, Spring Festival celebration only comes to a rest after the 15th day of the first lunar month, when the Lantern Festival is spent. In fact, people start preparing for Spring Festival celebration from as early as the 23rd of the last lunar month of the previous year. During this time, all families are busy with overall cleaning, making special purchases for the festival, sticking paper-cuts on windows, hanging New Year posters, Writing New Year couplets, cooking rice cakes, and making all sorts of foods, all in preparation to get rid of the old and welcome in the new. The night before New Year is called New Year's Eve, which is an essentially important time for family gathering. . Family members sit around a table, enjoy a sumptuous Hogmanay dinner, and then sit together to chat or play. Most of them stay up all night until next dawn, which is called Shou Sui in Chinese (waiting for New Year).
Shou Sui means not to sleep on the last night of a year and to stay up all night to welcome a new year. There is an interesting story among common folks for many generations about this origin of the custom. In time immemorial, a kind of fierce and strange beast lived in deep mountains and thick forests that people called Nian (Chinese for year). It had a ferocious appearance and savage character, eating everything from snap bug to living humans and changing its diet everyday, which makes people change color on hearing its name Nian. Later, people got to know the regularity of Nian's activities. Every 365 days it went to a human community to eat them, and it usually appeared after sunset and would go back to mountain or forest when roosters crowed dawn.
Counting the exact date of Nian's coming and indulgence, folks considered that night as a juncture of torture, which is called Nian Guan in Chinese, and they thought out a whole set of ways to get through that night, When the night came, every family made dinner early, extinguished fire and cleaned over, locked the door to all chicken pens and bullpens sealed front and back doors of the house, and had Hogmanay dinner in the house. Since people didn't know what would happen after this dinner, it was extremely sumptuous. Not only that every family member had to dine together around a table to show harmony and reunion, but that before dinner, they had to pay respect to ancestors for their blessing to help them get through the night. After dinner, no one dared sleep but all huddled together and chatted to earn courage. This gradually comes to be the custom of staying up on New Year's Eve.
This custom first caught on in Southern and Northern dynasties. Many scholars in the period of Liang (502-557)wrote poems and articles about it. People lit candles or oil lamps to stay up all night, symbolizing that the light shone on all evils, plagues, and diseases and drove them away, and anticipated good luck and fortune in the New Year. This custom has been handed down to the present.
When the clock strikes twelve at midnight of New Year's Eve, people will eat jiaozi (Chinese dumpling). In ancient time midnight was called Zi Shi and Zi Shi of New Year's Eve was the time when New Year replaces old year. People eat jiaozi ait this time because it means new replacing old and changing of year (which sounds similar to jiaozi in Chinese). That's how the name jiaozi came into being. It is also because that jiaozi made of flour are shaped like silver ingot, and plates of them being taking onto table implies the good wish of "making big fortune in the new and gold ingots keep running in, "this custom of eating jiaozi has been kept till now.
Children especially like spending Spring Festival because they can get money on New Year's Eve, which is called Ya Sui money (given to children by elders). Ya Sui money is a new year given with good wishes. The money should be daintily put in a red paper bag and will be distributed to minor juniors by the elders after Hogmanay dinner or after the clock striking twelve at midnight. it is saed that since year and the name of evil spirit sound the same(both are Sui in Chinese), Ya Sui money can keep evils away from juniors and ensure them a peaceful and healthy New Year.
After New Year's Eve it is the first day of lunar New Year. From that day on, people begin visiting relatives and friends paying New Year visit to each other. Bai Nian(Chinese for making New Year visit)is an important custom of Spring Festival and is a way of ridding the old, welcoming the new, and expressing good will to each other. On the one hand it is out of respect for the elders and love for relatives and friends, and on the other hand, it is an activity for communication and deepening friendship. On these visits, people say something auspicious for happiness and health, wishing each other all the best in the New Year.
During Spring Festival people also have the custom of Tie Chunlian (sticking New Year couplets). The original form of New Year couplets is so-called Tao Fu(peach wood charm). They first appeared in Zhou Dynasty (1046-256BC)in the form of rectangular peach woods hanging at each side of door. In ancient Chinese myth, there is said to be a world of ghosts, in which is a mountain where grows a huge peach tree covering3, 000 li of areas. On the treetop there is a gold rooster. Every morning when the gold rooster crows ghosts that have wandered away at night will come back to this world. The gate of this world is in the northeast of the peach tree. Two god men stand at each side of the gate. If the ghosts do something cruel in the night, they will discover it immediately and catch the ghost, bind it with ropes made of reeds, and send it to feed tigers. Consequently all ghosts in that world fear those two god men. As a result, common people carve peach wood into their shapes and place them in front of their door to keep away evil and injury. Later, people simply carve the two god men's names on peach wood, believing that can also suppress evil and keep away vice. These peach woods are later called" peach wood charm. "
When it came to Song Dynasty, people started writing couplets on peach wood, which serves three purposes. First, it still has the function of peach wood suppressing evil. Second, it expresses one's good wish. Third, it can be used as decoration to add beauty. Later couplets were written on red paper which symbolized happiness and fortune. They were to be stuck on both side of doors and windows to show people's wish for fortune and luck in the oncoming year. Because of strong advocacy of all dynasties, New Year couplets have become a special form of folk art in China, receiving long and high popularity.
To wish for the whole family's fortune, longevity, health and peace, people in some places still keep the custom of sticking door god. It is said that with two door gods stuck on the door, all sorts of demons and ghosts will be awed and turn away. For common people, door gods are tokens of righteousness and force. Ancient people believe that people with ugly faces usually are possessed with magic power and unnatural abilith. They are just and kind and defeating ghosts and demons is their nature and responsibility. Zhong Kui, the ghost-catching master who is admired by all, is with such a strange shape and ugly face. Therefore door gods used by common people always have angry staring eyes and savage faces with various traditional weapons in hand, always ready to fight with ghosts that dare to challenge. Since door of common Chinese house have two pieces, usually door gods appear in pairs.
Cracker playing is childrens favorite avtivity during Spring Festival. Legend has it that setting off crackers can drive away goblins and expel demons, so every year from New Year's Eve, the sound of crackers exploding lasts a long while. The beautiful fireworks and sound of crackers add fun to the festive liveliness, being a unique sight during that time.
During Spring Festival, each region has its local traditional entertainments, with lion dance, dragon light dance, land boat rowing, and high tilt playing as the most common Many regions hold temple fair, which is a tradition way to celebrate Spring Festival. It generally lasts from the first to seventh of the first lunar month In temple fair there is wonderful performance of lion dance and dragon dance and various kinds of handicrafts and local small eatings, which attract thousands and thousands of people celebrating the festival.
With the development of time, customs of spending Spring Festival have seen some changes too. For example, many cities have forbidden the playing of fireworks and crackers in case they cause fire or pollute environment. But this does not dampen the festive boisterousness. On New Year's Eve, family are still getting together and having Hogmanay dinner while watching brilliant Spring Festival party until early morning of the first day of the first lunar month. In the heart of all descendents of Chinese nation, Spring Festival is always the most important.