Monday, January 16, 2012

Chinese New Year - Spring Festival

What Westerners call Chinese New Year, the Chinese call the Spring Festival.  All Chinese Festivals are special events, but Spring Festival is the biggest, most elaborate and lasts the longest – 15 whole days and nights!  Each day has a special significance (See below).  Spring Festival begins on the first day of the first lunar month under the new moon; fifteen days later Spring Festival ends with the Lantern Festival which is celebrated under the light of the full moon.  This year that corresponds to January 23 and February 6 on the Gregorian calendar that Westerners use.

Before the Spring Festival begins cleaning, cooking, and shopping must be completed as the evening before the first day of the first lunar month is for spending time with your family, eating and telling stories.  Midnight marks the transition to the New Year with firecrackers and dumplings.  Spring Festival’s fifteen days all have special tasks.
First Day: No cleaning!  All your good fortune might be swept out the door!  Children are given money in decorated red envelopes.  And the gods are welcomed.
Second Day: Prayers are sent to your ancestors as well as the gods.  Dogs enjoy their birthdays this day.
Third and Fourth Days: Sons-in-law are expected to show their respect to their in-laws.
Fifth Day: The God of Wealth (Making Money Correctly) is welcomed into homes.  You should not be out visiting when he comes.
Sixth to Tenth Days: Visiting friends, relatives, and the temples takes place.
Seventh Day: Traditionally people eat noodles to bring long life.  It is also humankind’s birthday.  Farmers are honored on this day.
Ninth Day: Offerings are made to the Jade Emperor.
Tenth to Twelfth Days: Visiting is over and invitations to family and friends to join you for a meal are given. 
Thirteenth Day: Take a break from overeating and eat simply on this day.
Fourteenth Day: All preparations for the Lantern Festival are made.
Fifteenth Day: The Lantern Festival is celebrated under the first full moon.  Lanterns are lit, parades wind through the streets, and sticky rice balls are consumed.

The Chinese Zodiac consists of twelve animals each representing a year every twelve years.  This is the year of the Dragon (long ).  People born during Dragon years are said to be energetic, imaginative, full of fun and lucky.  Dragons are the movers and shakers of the world.
Chinese Dragons are benevolent, unlike the Western Dragons which are cruel and demand sacrifice.   The Dragon was the symbol of the Emperor because the Dragon represents wealth, wisdom, power, and nobility.  In the old days only the Emperor could wear this symbol.

Story of Nián
The Chinese word for year is nián ().  There is good reason for this.  Nián was the name of a ferocious monster with a voracious appetite that plagued the countryside every year eating livestock and people as well.  So each year the people of the villages would flee to the mountains for safety driving their livestock ahead of them.
One year an old man entered the village just as everyone was fleeing.  He stopped at the home of an old woman and asked, “Why are the people leaving your village?”
“Because,” she answered, “they are afraid.”
“Why are they afraid?” the Old Man queried.
“You don’t know?”  The Old Woman was incredulous.  She told the Old Man about Nián and its terrible appetite.
“Ah…”  The Old Man stroked his beard.  “Would you like to be rid of Nián forever?”
“Of course,” replied the Old Woman.  “But how can we do that?  It eats everything!”
“Leave it to me.  May I stay in your house tonight?”
“Yes, but I hope you will still be here when we return.”  And with that the Old Woman picked up her bundle and was off.
The Old Man covered the all the windows with red paper and cloth.  He made pyres of bamboo on the paths leading to the entrances.  He set firecrackers up so he could light one and all would go off.  And then he sat back and waited.
That night the Old Man heard a terrible roaring and gnashing sound.  He peeked out the window and saw Nián emerging from the dark.  Quickly he lit the fires and firecrackers.  Nián saw the red in the windows and the bright flames from the fires.   Nián heard the loud pop pop of the firecrackers.  Nián stood still, then turned and ran away into the night.
When the villagers returned to their homes, there was the Old Man waiting for them.  They crowded around him with questions flying.  He held up his hand; then told them about what had happened in their absence.
“Really?” the villagers asked.  Nián is afraid of red, loud noises and bright light?”
“Yes,” answered the Old Man.
And the celebration began.  Now every year people all over China and elsewhere in the world celebrate the New Year with Red, Loud Noises and Bright Lights.  And Nián has not been seen since.

There are many versions of the story of Nián.  This version of the story was told to me by Mr. Li Kuo, a teacher from Heilongjiang Provence located in the Chinese rooster’s head.  Mr. Li is spending the current school year teaching Mandarin to HS students in Monte Vista, CO, and was a great help in finishing the pinyin glossary for my book, Old China through the Eyes of a Storyteller, to be published by Parkhust Brothers late Summer, 2012.

Here are some websites that give more details about the Chinese New Year.

               Brief explanation of the Chinese New Year and links to more details.
               A fun social studies website for teachers and students.
               Hints for things to do to celebrate as well as ads for Johnson cleaning products.
               Simple explanation of the twelve Zodiac animals and a very brief story about why these twelve and not others.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

A New Year

So why is today, January 1, 2012, the beginning of a new year?  What special events happened on this date long ago to make it memorable and the beginning of a year?  Why doesn’t the year begin with the lengthening of days on the Winter Solstice?  Or perhaps on the Vernal Equinox when the season of Spring starts?  And who set up the calendar we use anyway?

That’s a lot of questions to ask after a night of reveling, except I fell asleep and dreamed about a New Year, a New Beginning.

This morning, instead of complaining about a headache which I didn’t have, I did what good librarians have done for centuries – research.  And here’s what I found out.

Not everyone celebrates New Year on January 1.  I already knew about the Chinese New Year, known as the Spring Festival, which follows the Lunar Calendar instead of the Solar Calendar and lasts fifteen days.  The Chinese or Lunar New Year falls on January 23 this year.  But what about other cultures?  Here’s some more in order of their occurrence during the year 2012: Buddhists celebrate start of the New Year on the date when Buddha Mahaparinibbana died; so this year is will be April 6.  The Buddhist year is 2555.  Next is Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year a time of introspection and change, which will be from sundown on September 16 through 18.  The Jewish year is 5772.  And the quiet Islamic New Year is a remembrance of Muhammed’s emigration from Mecca to Medina and will occur on November 26.  The Islamic year is 1433.  (

I found a really good article about the Julian and Gregorian calendars by Peter Meyer which explains how the Romans used a solar year calendar and Julius Caesar needed to change from the old calendar which was in use at the time of his reign.  But then by the year 1582, the Julian calendar no longer matched with the times the seasons naturally began, thus Easter was slipping into summer on the calendar.  Oooops.  Two Popes, Paul III and Gregory XIII, were instrumental in changing the calendar which now bears Gregory’s name since he had more to do with it than Paul did.  Jesuit Christopher Clavius and astronomer and physician, Luigi Lilio, were the actual authors of the calendar, but of course, in those days it took a papal bull to institute a change so large as eliminating ten whole days from the calendar and getting the world to agree.  European countries were, of course, the first to adopt the Gregorian Calendar, but it took a good 341 years to get consent from some quarters.  The Gregorian Calendar is now considered to be the international civil calendar – the one everyone uses to count the years as they fly by.  Well, actually so we all understand when matters we all discuss happened.  Acceptance by the International Community took quite a number of years, no matter whose years you count.

So back to January 1 and the beginning of a New Year.  Why January 1?  The Romans, it seems began their year in March with Spring, but when Julius Caesar changed the calendar that date fell on January 1.   To top that off the Roman senate convened on January 1.  Caesar, however, wanted the New Year to begin at the Winter Solstice – new light, new beginning.  Seeing the political light Caesar capitulated and gave up on the Winter Solstice as being the beginning of the New Year.  

According to Christian tradition Jesus was circumcised on January 1.  Circumcision was an auspicious day in the life of any Jewish male child.  So when the Popes got involved in calendar reform, New Year’s Day was kept as January 1.  Since the world as a whole adopted the Gregorian Calendar, the world celebrates the New Year on January 1.

Whatever the tradition you follow, a new year is a new beginning, a time to reflect on the year just past and adjust for the clean slate year ahead. 

Just an afterthought: We could all celebrate our very own New Year when it’s our birthday. 
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