New Year’s Eve
Usually starting at 11:00 p.m. the celebration will begin with ancestor worshipping and will be followed by a reunion dinner, a savory and royally feast cooked for the occasion.
Since the Chinese calendar is a lunisolar calendar, the last day of a year is also called lunar New Year's Eve (Traditional Chinese: 大年夜, Pinyin: dàniányè, translated: old, large, huge, major, important year's night).
Because the Lunar New Year’s Eve is “the end of the old year” (Traditional Chinese: 舊年尾, Pinyin: jiù nián wěi, literally translated: old year tail) and Chinese New Year is “the beginning of the new year” (Traditional Chinese: 新年頭, Pinyin: xīn nián tóu, literally translated: new year's head), both of the turning points are the biggest festivals of the entire lunar year. In the afternoon of the Lunar New Year’s Eve, the ceremony of “ci nian” (Traditional Chinese: 辭年, Pinyin: cí nián, translated: bid farewell to the old year) will be held by offering sacrifices to the Heaven, the family gods, the ancestors and finally to the wandering souls (passed away souls of former residents who died without family, not receiving a proper funeral and hence still protecting the household's property) and (taosit) gods of the property like Tu Di Gong - the later two are the Gods of the Groundwork (地基主), reiceiving the offering at the front door.
Family is viewed as a closely united group of living and dead relatives.
Ancestor worship is a religious practice based on the belief that deceased family members have a continued existence, that the spirits of deceased ancestors will look after the family, take an interest in the affairs of the world, and possess the ability to influence the fortune of the living.
Unity of the group is reinforced through ancestor veneration, offering of various kinds help to keep the ancestors happy in the spiritual world, who, in return, will bless the family.
Being an important aspect of the Chinese culture, the social or non-religious function of ancestor worship is to cultivate kinship values like filial piety, family loyalty, and continuity of the family lineage.
Ancestor worship is a family affair, held in homes and consists of offering joss stick, serving as communication and greetings to the deceased, prayers and offering items before memorial tablets.
Before the reunion dinner, the spirits of the ancestors are invited to join the celebration; fruits, food, sweets, flowers and tea will be offered to them. Ancestors will be served their favourite dishes as well as ‘dishes with a meaning’.
The reunion dinner, also known as Tuan Nian or Wei Lu, marks a family gathering on the Lunar New Year’s Eve and the Chinese consider it to be the most important part of the celebration.
Traditional Chinese: 團年, Pinyin: tuán nián, translated: (re)unite or grouping year; describing the tradition of family gathering at the reunion dinner
Traditional Chinese: 圍爐, Pinyin: wéilú, literally: to circle around the stove
Children are supposed to return to their families, married couples will go the the male’s relatives (and to the female's relatives on the second day of the festivities).
If a family member couldn't participate in the grand feasting, his or her presence is usually symbolized by placing an empty seat at the banquet.
Dishes with a Meaning, the Symbolism of Food
For this meal, the best foods and ‘dishes with a meaning’ are served - and in abundance too, as the abundance of food is believed to bring the family great material wealth in the new year. Chinese like playing with words and symbols. Often homonyms (words that share the same pronunciation but have different meanings) are used. Names of dishes or their ingrediets which will be served sound similar to words and phrases refering to wishes expressed during the Chinese New Year. Other foods hold a symbolic meaning.
Most reunion dinners will include a whole chicken, symbolising prosperity, togetherness of the family and joy (note: chicken with its head, tail and feet symbolizes completeness) and a whole fish (Traditional Chinese: 魚; Simplified Chinese: 鱼; Pinyin: yú), symbolising surplus, prosperity, 'having leftovers of money', hence abundance. To strengthen the symbolic meaning of the fish dish, most likely it will not the eaten completely.
The Chinese phrase "may there be surpluses every year" (Traditional Chinese: 年年有餘; Simplified Chinese: 年年有余; Pinyin: nián nián yǒu yú) sounds the same as "may there be fish every year."
New Year Night and early morning
After a sumptuous reunion dinner, all family members will gather to stay awake all night as it is believed to delay the aging process of the more elderly family members and hence increase longevity.
This gathering and staying together during the time between the years is called shou sui (Traditional Chinese: 守岁, Pinyin: shǒusuì, translated: guarding age or guarding the year) and implies an all night party.
A significant custom associated with New Year celebration is to spend the New Year's Eve preparing and eating Chinese dumplings called jiaozi (Traditional Chinese 餃子, Simplified Chinese: 饺子, Pinyin: jiǎo zi ). The shape of the jiaozi represents a juanbao, hence wealth, so while eating a jiaozi, one is eating wealth and luck.
Sometimes a coin is hidden inside the jiaozi and whoever will find it is supposed to be showered with good fortune and wealth in the year to come.
Jiaozi typically consist of a ground meat and/or vegetable filling wrapped into a thinly rolled piece of dough, which is then sealed by pressing the edges together or by crimping, than boiled or steamed. The preparation is easy and does not involve any knives, and again, cutting off good fortune is avoided.
As said before, Chinese like playing with words and in this sense, the Chinese word for jiaozi can be interpreted, explaining why the dish is favourable to consume on New Year's Eve at a special time.
Jiao (Traditional Chinese: 交, Pinyin: jiāo) translates into "to turn over; to make friends; to hand in; to deliver; to intersect (of lines); to pay and, as a noun, boundary".
The second character of the word jiǎo zi refers to an hourly indication, 11 p.m.-1 a.m. and indicates the first of the twelve Earthly Branches (Traditional Chinese: 地支, Pinyin: dìzhī). The twelve Earthly Branches, namely Zi, Chou, Yin, Mao, Chen, Si, Wu, Wei, Shen, You, Xu, and Hai are signs to indicate order and are used in combination with the Heavenly Stems (Traditional Chinese: 天干, Pinyin: tiān gàn) to form 60 pairs which designate the order of years (Chinese Sexagenary Cycle, Traditional Chinese: 干支; Pinyin: gānzhī), months, days and hours. The character zhi (Traditional Chinese: 支 , Pinyin: zhī) is a word, when used to describe measurement, translates as "to raise; to erect; to support; or branch (as a noun)". "Zi" is a reference to the first and eleventh hour (branch) of Dizhi - midnight on the Western clock.
Hence, consuming a Chinese dumpling at midnight indicates wishing for a good and prosperous year.
A further custom is to eat a new year cake called niangao (Traditional Chinese: 年糕, Pinyin: nián gāo ,translated: year- cake) after dinner and send pieces of it as gifts to relatives and friends in the coming days of the new year, as it is believed that niangao indicates an increasingly prosperous year.
The year will get off to a bad start if food is served or eat from broken or chipped dinnerware, as this signifies your eating into your own capital.
Children are allowed to stay awake until late. Every light in the house is supposed to be kept on the whole night. At midnight, the whole sky will be lit up by fireworks and firecrackers.
The old year is bidded farewell, the new year called xinnian (Tradition Chinese: 新年, Pinyin: xīn nián, literally: new year) is welcomed.
Most important of all, one is congratulating each other to have survived the ‘Nian’, according to legend a terrible monster, afraid of bright light, the colour red and loud noises- as all bad spirits are. Everybody hopes that no other evil spirit bringing bad fortune had slipped between the cracks of time, the second before the first day of the first lunar month of the Spring Festival.
Before the Chinese New Year, new clothing in red colour was bought and will now be worn for the first three days of the New Year Celebrations.
Early the next morning, children greet their parents and receive their presents: red envelopes, also called Hong Bao or Lai Shi, normally containing money. Hong Bao will be handed out during the first days of the New Year Celebration during family visits as well.
Then, the family starts out to say greetings from door to door, first their relatives and then their neighbours.
Welcoming Tsai Shen, the God of Wealth
Many families worship the God of Wealth named Tsai Shen or Cai Shen (traditional Chinese: 財神; simplified Chinese: 财神; pinyin: Cáishén) in the early morning, by offering incense and invite the god into their homes. Firecrackers are again lit to welcome the god. As mentioned before, these crackers are supposed to scare away any traces of ‘Nian’, as the monster is afraid of the noise. Temples will be filled with believers who pay respect to the deity. Dumplings will be eaten on that day, as they are thought to resemble ancient ingots of precious metal.
People say that after being offered sacrifices, Tsai Shen leaves for heaven on the second day of the lunar New Year. People will burn the picture they welcomed on the New Year’s Eve and see the deity off, wishing for a luckier and more prosperous year.
read on: Chinese New Year Festivities