Its that special time of the year again in China, only a few more days until Chinese New year, also known as Spring Festival. In China, this festival is the most important lunar festival for every family in China.
Spring Festival can be broken up into 3 (actually a million but today, three) separate important sections which are applicable to all of China. Those are, Family, Food and Traditions.
In China, Spring festival is a time to be spent with your family. Most young adults and older family members will travel back to “lao jia” the traditional family home, to see in the new year. Usually this could mean a long journey via train or car to get back to the village where your parents or grandparents were born!
In my family “lao jia” is the village my husband was raised in. There, he can see his uncles and other cousins and relatives whom he hasn’t seen since last years Spring Festival.
In China food is what really brings people together. The eating culture in China is so strong, that business deals, friendships and relationships are all made over the dinner table. China is a massive country and each region, town and village has its own special foods that they make at Chinese new year. A staple however is dumplings. Almost every family will make dumplings at New year!
My mother in law is exceptionally skilled at making dumplings. She can make the tiny little pleats as if by magic her hands move lightening fast where as my clumsy hands just seem to smoosh the seams together. She never minds though, as she has told me a thousand times “it all ends up in one place.”
Other favourite dishes that we eat as a family at this time are whole cooked fish, a whole Chicken, meatballs and many other delicious foods. My mouth is watering already and its still a few days away yet! ALL of this delicious food is prepared by my mother in law with the occasional help of my sister in law and I.
Every city in China has its own special traditions at New year but there are some that are universal. For one, it is tradition to set off fireworks. New year in China apparently has a legend of a monster called “sui” who would steal children so setting off fire works was the way that people can scare away this demon and all bad luck in general.
Another universal tradition is to “tie duizi” which means to stick the traditional couplets on the doors of your house. The first time i went to my husbands village at New years, my husband and his brother took me to the local market to buy the couplets. An old man with a calligraphy brush in his hand would have a big piece of red paper by his side. You would choose what special blessings you wanted on your house and he would write them in perfect calligraphy in front of you. Then you would take them home, cut them into strips and using a paste of water and flour, stick them on the door jambs and on the top of the door.
We would do this for all of our family members. The thing is, my husband always considered it a chore, but to me it was something new and exciting!
The final tradition which I find is fairly universal is “ketou” which has an almost exact English translation of kowtow, or bowing to your ancestors. Usually at some point in Spring festival you may need to bow to someone. If you are young it may be to your grandparents in exchange for a red envelope full of cash, or if you are older to the village elders or your long deceased relatives.
In my husbands village, his oldest uncle sets up a family shrine in the home and people from all over the village come to kowtow to their memory. Groups of families will go from home to home and give the ancestors three kowtows before moving on to the next home to do the same. One thing i didn’t know before was the difference between a kowtow and a bow; a kowtow is done on your knees with your head touching the floor when you bow.
At the end of the three most important spring festival days all the people in the family get together and set up a shrine on the road. They will burn fake money and paper and set out wine and a chicken for the deceased ancestors then, everyone kowtows together before setting off fireworks to see off their spirits.
To me, the most amazing part of Spring festival is the traditions that go hand in hand with the festival, the feeling of family is there just like my traditional Christmas back home and even though the festival is different, there is still that warm feeling that comes from deep down inside when you are surrounded by people who care for you. It has taken me a few years to recognize what it is but its the true feeling of family that makes Spring festival in China so comforting and welcoming.
Do you celebrate Chinese New year in your town? How do you introduce your kids to Chinese festivals?