And so begins the cycle of cleaning, decorating, preparing and cooking, visiting, and giving out red packets. Are you looking forward to this? Unless you’re the child waiting to eat and receive red packets, right?
What is it about Chinese New Year that gets our panties in a knot anyway? Those who do not celebrate the festival might not understand it entirely, but really, it can’t be anymore different from Hari Raya, Deepavali and Christmas. After all, for each and every big celebration, every home will go through a period of purging to rid the home of ghouls and poltergeists, enriched with food and decoration, and filled with fun and laughter.
Chinese New Year, Defined
Also known as the ‘Spring Festival’ or ‘Lunar New Year’, Chinese New Year marks the beginning of a Chinese calendar, and it can fall on either late January or early February. It is a major celebration for the Chinese community and is celebrated all over the world. Each Chinese New Year is named after one of the twelve animals in the Chinese zodiac, so this year, 2016, is the Year of the Fire Monkey.
This year, the festival falls on Monday, February 8 and is given a two-day national public holiday in Malaysia, so we can now enjoy another long weekend until Tuesday, February 9. However, this does not mean that the celebration ends after two days. The actual period for Chinese New Year lasts for fifteen (15) days, just like Christmas lasting for twelve (12) days, with the last day ending with Chap Goh Mei or the ‘Lantern Festival’.
Chinese New Year, A Legend
It was believed that at midnight on every new year, a savage beast known as ‘Nian’ will come and eat the villagers’ livestock, crops and even children. One day, the villagers saw that the ‘Nian’ was frightened off by a child wearing red and making loud noises. It was then that red and firecrackers were associated with the celebration and with keeping the ‘Nian’ at bay.
This is also a time when bitterness and disputes are resolved, debts are paid off and any other ill fortune and bad luck are cleared away to ensure you have a fresh start to your new year.
Chinese New Year, In All Its Glory
The celebration is accompanied by many symbols, beliefs and traditions, with red being the colour for the New Year celebrations. Wherever you go, you will see people wearing red clothing, hanging red decorations in, out and around their homes, and having anything that is associated with the colour red.
Flowers such as narcissus and peony, fruits such as oranges, and Chinese mythological beasts like dragons are a few examples of the symbols that hold special meaning for the Chinese New Year celebrations. These are the items that will be prominently and proudly displayed in the homes and offices throughout the celebration period.
Homes will be cleaned on the eve of the New Year as it is believed that the act of sweeping and cleaning on the first day is equivalent to sweeping the luck, fortune and prosperity away! It is also taboo to use sharp objects like knives and scissors, utter foul languages or scold someone. But if there was a death in your family, you will not be allowed to do any visiting as it is believed that you will bring bad luck to your host by doing so.
Now you see why we run around like headless chickens when the festival draws closer? And this is only the beginning. Wait until you see what we have to do to prepare for the celebrations!
As you know by now, Chinese New Year is so major that the streets in Kuala Lumpur will become abnormally quiet. Construction sites, restaurants, and businesses run by the Chinese will close during the period and some may only open after the fifth day! Many Malaysian Chinese will head back to their hometowns for family reunions, while the other races will take advantage of the long holiday to go away for a vacation. As a result, many major highways will get congested and somehow, every year, despite the caution and advice, road accidents are still occurring.
What Happens on the Eve
This is the time when families will get together for reunion dinners. It is a very important part of the celebration where everyone is expected to attend. Most families will have their dinners at home, but some may choose to have their dinners in restaurants. Traditionally, married couples will have this reunion dinner with the husband’s family. Well, I’m not one for tradition so when I got married, we had the reunion dinner with my side of the family!
A Time for Visiting
This is also the time of the year when children and the unmarried will be given ang pow, which are red packets with money inside. They can contain any amount of money that is determined under the discretion of the person giving. Naturally, newly married couples are expected to give twice the amount on the first year that they are celebrating. Please don’t give people RM2.00 and tell them it is twice the amount of RM1.00. Let’s not be a Scrooge. Of course, I don’t mean to say that you give them RM1,000 (RM500 x 2) or RM10,000 (RM5,000 x 2), unless you’re filthy stinking rich! Give the amount that you are able to give.
Open houses will also be held where anyone can drop by to mingle and share the fun and the food. This concept is also being practised by the business communities as a form of networking, and to give thanks to their stakeholders. Even the Malaysian embassies worldwide follow this practice in order to bring Malaysians together.
Traditional Cakes and Cookies
Chinese New Year is a celebration of sorts, from adhering to customs and traditions to reunion dinners and attending open houses. But it is also a time for people start baking the varieties of Chinese cakes and cookies. This normally starts at least a month before as it involves a lot of preparation. Many will churn out big batches as a side income, while others do it because it is their only source of income.
The practice used to be home baked, but lately, many wives are now working and they do not have the time to bake. Hence, it is more convenient to buy from sellers who are known for certain delicacies. Having said that, however, they are still those who prefer to make their own cakes and cookies.
Some of the popular favourites include kueh kapit (love letters), kueh bangkit, kueh bahulu, spicy mini shrimp rolls, and kueh tart nenas (pineapple tarts), peanut biscuits, and nian kueh.
Chinese New Year, the 15th or Chap Goh Mei
This is also known as the ‘Lantern Festival’ which is celebrated just as grandly as the first day of the New Year. Homes will still bear the decorations of lanterns and lights, altars marked with offerings and joss sticks for prayers and to seek blessings, which can also be made at most temples.
Chap Goh Mei highlights the act of throwing oranges into the sea by single women and girls in hopes of getting good husbands. I just threw mine into the vast sea of the online world and reeled in a husband on Facebook. Some women even go as far as writing their contact numbers and Facebook accounts on the fruits. Prepare to see guys busy scouring the sea for these oranges then. Because of its tradition, Chap Goh Mei is sometimes referred to as the Chinese equivalent of Valentine’s Day!
The Bright Red and Orange Dances
Here comes the noisy part of the celebrations. Lion and dragon dances have long been performed during the Chinese New Year celebrations in many Malaysian Chinese homes, offices and shops as it is believed to welcome good fortune and ward off evil influences.
The dances are a combination of high degrees of agility, strength, stamina and elegance, and each person performing has to know what the other person is about to do. In order to maintain the perfect formation of the dance, the performers are required to undergo extensive training not limited to the complicated dance steps, but also in acrobatic and martial arts. Each dance troupe can have up to twenty (20) members as each individual has his or her own responsibility. Members are required to carry the instruments such as gongs, drums and cymbals that they use to perform the musical part of the dance routine, while the rest will have to carry the lion or dragon outfit required for the dance itself.
For the dances in Malaysia, so far I’ve seen most of the performances being carried out by students in Chinese schools. Apparently, it is considered a privilege if a Chinese school is selected to perform these dances.
So now you know what Chinese New Year is all about, at least now you know why we get all worked up a month beforehand. Now excuse me while I go hang up a lantern on my front door.