It's Chinese New Year time! As it is the most important holiday in China, let’s take some time to review its traditions, etiquette and taboos that make this celebration so special.
Spring festival couplets
Preparing for New Year, every family will prepare couplets. In ancient times, people hung peach wood boards on the front gate of their house. These boards had Chinese characters written on them with the purpose of driving away the evil spirit. Later they were replaced by red papers with a verse line of black or gold to welcome the New Year. People with a certain talent for Chinese Calligraphy would send hand written couplets as a gift to their friends, expressing their wishes for happiness and good fortune.
Wearing a new outfit
In China, the New Year is the time to buy new clothes as way to symbolize getting ready for a new start. Red being the color of luck and prosperity, many families would go out wearing red clothes on Chinese New Year. It is also a tradition kept from when China was principally an agrarian society, where most people would only get new clothes on New Year’s day, unlike our modern society that shops for clothes all year round.
As the old Chinese saying goes “二十四扫房日”, “the 24th day of the lunar calendar is cleaning day.” On this day, the whole family, men and women, the old and the young gather their forces for a thorough cleaning in the entire family house. The Chinese“尘” (chén, dust) has the same pronunciation as “陈” (chén, staleness). As a result, sweeping dust (扫尘 sǎochén) also means “sweeping away staleness” (扫陈 sǎochén). Cleaning therefore also means sweeping away bad luck and welcoming the coming year with a shining new outlook.
Family reunion dinner
Chinese New Year is of course celebrated firstly around the dinner table. Considered as the most important meal of the year, all family members gather for a big feast. Remember to respect dining etiquette !
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At the table, whenever you want to sip on your wine or liquor, don’t forget to offer a toast to other guests, following order of age and offer your best wishes while toasting.
Remember to stand up and to show respect to elders by knocking your glass at a lower level than their glass when toasting.
Staying up late on New Year’s Eve
Staying up late on New Year’s Eve actually represent a sign of future success for people. The elders do it for cherishing their past memories, while the young stay up for their parents’ longevity, chatting together or playing games. Another traditional way is to keep the lights open all night to expel the evil spirit, looking forward to embrace the New Year in a lucky manner !
Setting off firecrackers
This is an important tradition during the Spring Festival which traces back over 2000 years. These were initially used to drive away poisonous mists or curb pestilence. As the blasting sounds are ideal for creating a joyful atmosphere, setting off firecrackers has become a recreational activity during this special time of the year.
However, out of safety reasons and environmental protection, many cities across China have imposed bans or restrictions on the use of fireworks and firecrackers during festivals and holidays.
Giving a red packet is a way for the elders to express their blessings to the younger people. It is impolite to open a red envelope in front of the person offering it to you. When receiving it, always take it with both hands, thank very carefully and greet the person warmly.
Nowadays, many young people also prepare red packet for the elders to express their love and best wishes. When giving a red packet, choose an amount of money on line with local customs and with your personal income, and avoid odd numbers.
New year's greetings
Since ancient times, the most important thing for Chinese people in the New Year is to "bài nián", meaning to visit relatives, friends and neighbors and bring them gifts during the days following the New Year. This is a good opportunity for people to meet again, after a busy year at work or far away from home.
When choosing your gifts for the New Year, pay special attention to send appropriate wishes and avoid unwanted implications, especially related to homophony of the gift, which could cause backfire when offering it !
For example, “pear” (li) and “book” (shu) sound the same as “separate” (li) and “lose” (shu). Also, when bringing the gift, be careful with the number, as it’s always more appropriate to offer a pair rather than just a single item.
Cutting your hair
An old saying goes “cutting your hair on the 1st lunar month will bring curse to your uncle”. This tradition goes back to Qing dynasty, where Han people were required to shave their forehead and tie a braid in their back. Feeling nostalgic for their own culture, Han people keep the habit not to shave their hair during the first month of the new lunar year.
Saying negative words
During the New Year, avoid negative words such as : "death", "sick", "ghost", "poor"... those are considered unlucky, so think twice before discussing such serious topics, inappropriate for this time of the year !
The customs of the new year are far more than those mentioned above, but we will stop here for today. Let’s hope for a wonderful new year, filled with good fortune and happiness !
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