Chinese New Year 2020: the year of the Golden Rat. History and traditions of a millenary festival.7 min read
Two days ago, on January 25, the new year began according to the traditional Chinese calendar, a holiday period that will end on February 8, with the start of the Lantern Festival.
This is the year of the Metal Rat (associated with gold), and according to Chinese astrology, those born under this sign are meticulous, intelligent and charismatic and, combined with the element of Metal, also controlled, ambitious, energetic and resolute.
I asked myself, what are the ancient roots from which current traditions such as red color, fireworks, famous ravioli come from … what do they symbolize for Chinese culture these days?
This very ancient and important Chinese holiday, every year falls on a different day between 21 January and 19 February, given the variability of the ancient Chinese Calendar which, unlike ours, the Gregorian solar type, is lunisolar: based on the lunar cycles, with an additional month every 2-3 years to maintain an average duration equal to the solar one. Babylonian, Greek, Celtic, Jewish and Hindu calendars were also of this type.
Therefore, the new year corresponds to the second new moon after the winter solstice, day dedicated to Shangdi, divinity or entity that in the long Chinese history will significantly change in meaning: from generic supreme entity, to assimilation of the imperial cult from the Shang dynasty (1700-1100 BC), also representing the celebrations related to “heaven”, so much so that until the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), the winter solstice will still be found tied to its name (the term “Shangdi” is also used by Taoists as an appellation of respect, not to be confused with the divinity in question).
Currently, the Gregorian calendar is in force in China, but the holidays keep the dating of the traditional Chinese calendar.
In ancient Chinese legends, the Nian monster is very popular. It is very similar to a lion or a dog, and in the days coinciding with the New Year and early spring, descends from the mountains to attack humans, preferring children. This monster is frightened by the red color, by the light (he manifests itself only at night), and by loud noises.
In ancient times, precisely to get away from the looming threat, they resorted to the decoration of homes with red ornaments, dressing clothes of the same color, exploding firecrackers, fireworks, and performing the representation of the famous and “rowdy” Lion dance, performed by martial artists and acrobats with cymbals, percussion, gongs and the famous beast costume.
All these activities have remained in the tradition of the Chinese New Year, and we can still find it in the customs of the People’s Republic. Some, such as wearing red clothes, primarily underwear, have reached also the West.
A curiosity: the term “Nian” indicates both the famous mythological monster, and the word “year”. Therefore, the usual wish that is expressed with “guo nian”, has the double value of “that you pass the year” and “that the beast passes”!
Regardless of legends and superstitions, in ancient times like today, the New Year represents for the Chinese the end of a hard year of work and an opportunity for a well-deserved rest, with the wish for a prosperous and lucky new year to be spent mainly in family.
As a national holiday, 3 days of vacation are recognized in China.
In the previous days, we proceed to a thorough cleaning of the house, just to “clean away” the year that is about to pass, symbolized by a negative aspect, that of dirt and metaphorically by bad luck, preparing the house to welcome the new luck that is about to arrive.
The house is then decorated with red ornaments, trinkets and lanterns, a true symbol of the New Year and a good omen and prosperity.
During the eve, together with relatives, a fish-based banquet is consumed, which in Chinese is pronounced “Yu”, equal to the word “save” (savings that are made at the end of the year just in view of the new one), together with the other symbol of the New Year for almost two millennia, the Jiaozi, the famous ravioli also much appreciated in the West, stuffed with pork, beef, shrimp, fish or vegetables, both in the boiled variants (Jiaozi), steamed (zhengjiao) and grilled (guotie). Tradition has it that the more you eat them on New Year’s Eve, the more luck you will have in the new year.
To complete the meal there is the “Nian Gao” rice cake with dates, walnuts and lotus leaves, the meaning of which is “improving year by year”.
At midnight it is tradition, also assimilated in the West, the explosion of firecrackers and fireworks, followed by the burst of three larger shots, which represent the exit of the old year and the entry of the new one (a tradition that is traditionally repeated at each fireworks display, with the final three shots).
The exchange of red envelopes containing small gifts, usually money, for relatives, married couples and young people is extremely popular. Generally coins are inserted, therefore with a purely symbolic value, always of even number (since the odd number is associated with the gift of money at funerals) and never four, considered unfortunate, unlike his double, the eight, lucky par excellence. In recent years, the sending of “digital red envelopes” via computers and social networks has become commonplace among young people.
The first days of the holiday are marked by traditional activities, aimed at building the ideal conditions of harmony for the year that has just begun.
For example, the first day is colored by the allegorical parade of the Lion dance, which runs through the main city streets. It is a day also dedicated to visiting the closest relatives, mainly parents and grandparents.
The following day draws on tradition from archaic times, the visit to the parents of married women, since in ancient times the bride very rarely met her parents after the wedding. Of course times have changed, but traditions also remain to remember ancient aspects of society.
From the second to the fourth day, particular attention is paid to prayer, especially to the commemoration and worship of the deceased, with the lighting of candles and incense.
The fifth day is very important in Taiwan, the so-called “capitalist China”, which is associated with the god of wealth Bi Gan. On this day, the shops on the island are reopened among the celebrations.
On the seventh day everyone is considered older than a year. According to ancient Chinese mythology, man was created by Empress Nuwa, one of the “three August” who first reigned over China. Elevated then to Taoist divinity, it is one of the classic millennial processes of fusion between real characters with mythological figures. This holiday, called Renri, is celebrated in all Asian countries that have undergone Chinese historical and cultural influence, such as Japan.
On the fifteenth day, the first full moon of the year, the New Year ends with a new celebration, the “Lantern Festival”.
The cities are illuminated by many lanterns and at night you can walk through the streets accompanied by one of these. On each lantern are glued sheets of paper with riddles written that everyone can read and have fun to solving. This is an even millennial tradition: the festival was born in the period of the Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 BC), but its origin is lost in dozens of legends, ranging from the Jade Emperor, to ancient warriors, to the divinity of fortune Tianguan, up to Taiyi, divinity linked to the constellation of the Big Dipper.
Typical food of the festival is Tanguyan, rice flour balls, plain or stuffed, served in boiling water.
The New Year is closely linked to Chinese astrology, which attributes to each year an element between Wood, Fire, Metal, Water and Earth, and one of the 12 animals that make up the signs of the Chinese zodiac: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Hare, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Ram, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Pig.
The decorations are also strongly influenced by the sign and the element, with various representations of the animal that symbolizes the new year.
2020 belongs to the Metal Rat (in this case, gold).
The Chinese New Year celebrations are now international in scope, thanks to the Chinese communities that organize events in the major cities of the world, also with the contribution and patronage of local institutions.
All images from web. Google research.