The best comparison with Chinese New Year is Christmas. Preparations are made in the build-up to New Year, similar to advent. Houses are cleaned and decorated – except not with tinsel and fairy lights but red adornments and pictures of gods for good luck. The Chinese are not religious people, but they are superstitious. Further detail can be found here. You don’t need a god for a symbolic tradition!
At Christmas there is the Christmas tree. Perhaps the closest comparison in China is the ‘couplets’ adorning most front doors (click the picture for more detail about couplets). These scrolls on each side of the entrance present a poem written in calligraphy and carrying greetings to passers-by. Isn’t this a far nicer tradition than taking nature out of public view to slowly die in our isolated enclosure?
Chinese do not celebrate birthdays. New Year is also everyone’s birthday celebrations at once. Children receive money in red envelopes. However, there is no tradition in the Chinese calendar of exchanging presents.
So why is Chinese New Year not at the same time as the Western one? The Chinese have a completely different calendar that follows changes in the moon. For further information, look here. The Romanic calendar used in the West may dominate the world – much as the English language has – but this does not mean it is the only, or even the best, option available.
The New Year starts at a full moon that traditionally marks the start of spring (hence ‘spring festival’). On that evening, families gather together and eat the traditional food ‘jaozi’ (said jaorzer), which is a type of dumpling usually containing pork. Fireworks and firecrackers (see picture) are set off to scare away evil spirits. Well, it’s basically a good excuse to light some explosives! – the Chinese did invent gunpowder, after all. Families sit together to watch a big television show that I described on my first day here, and throughout the holiday people socialise with friends and family. The end of the holiday is marked two weeks later by the Lantern Festival, where red lanterns are displayed.
To directly see how Chinese people enjoy themselves, I today visited Beijing’s biggest temple fair. Temple fairs are created at New Year to provide a day of family entertainment. The decorations were amazing, with ceilings of craftwork overhanging the logical paths of the park. Activities were numerous, including traditional Chinese experiences like a ride on a sedan chair and ‘peep’ show (see pictures), along with fairground game stalls. At the fair I visited, there was karaoke in the centre and an ice structure with slide. I believe that at various times of day there were performances that would definitely include a lion dance, and maybe a dragon dance, acrobatics, animal shows and music. As with any fair, the majority of stalls sold cheap tat; designed to entertain rather than to last. The most crowded section was the food. …The smells were amazing. The food stalls took up around a third of the whole fair.
Although I made an effort to visit this fair, I am still not comfortable enough to interact with people more than I need to. Of course, this is quite limiting. However I will always carry with me the picture of relaxed, contented Chinese faces, enjoying their time off work.