I grew up in a small mountain village in central Anhui Province in east China, which was almost isolated from the rest of the world in times past. In my childhood, although the people in my hometown lived a rather primitive and hard life with no electricity, no tap water, no power vehicles, no motorway, and even no sufficient food supply, they still attached great importance to celebrating the Spring Festival, which is Chinese New Year or the Lunar New Year, the most important festival in China that celebrates the beginning of a new year on the traditional lunar Chinese calendar.
Although today’s materials have been greatly enriched, the atmosphere of celebrating and the mood of looking forward to the Spring Festival have been much less and much lighter than those at that time! The serious attitude of meticulously preparing, the traditional ceremony of offering sacrifices to ancestors, the expectation and excitement of enjoying all kinds of delicious food and wearing new clothes during the New Year, and the happy atmosphere of setting off firecrackers and visiting each other to extend the New Year’s greeting have always been lingering in my memory.
The word “Happiness” is most popularly written on red paper pasted on the door during Spring Festival
In China, festivals are not complete without food. As the most important festival, Spring Festival is no exceptional. From the autumn of last year, people usually make preparations for making the New Year’s foods. First, sufficient firewood should be chopped from the mountains, dried and stacked up because at that time there was no electricity or coal and it relied on firewood to cook and make festival foods.
In my hometown, three kinds of food are the most important and popular for the Spring Festival: frozen rice brittle, rice noodle and tofu.
In addition to making the above three kinds of food, one of the most important signs of celebrating Spring Festival is slaughtering pigs. In the old days, due to the limited economic conditions, every family could raise one pig every year and slaughter it before the New Year, so that it could have a “prosperous year”. The so-called “prosperous year” is not to leave all the pork to eat at home, but to sell most of the pork for money, just leaving pig blood and pig offal.
The above-mentioned preparations for the Chinese New Year are just for one word: food. At ordinary times, the whole family is frugal, only hoping to eat better during the New Year’s Day. Therefore, if there is anything delicious to eat, save it for the festival. Another reason is that farmers are usually busy with farm work and don’t have time to visit relatives and neighbours, so they can only make use of this holiday to visit each other. Prepare more food, also for entertaining guests. It is the tradition and folk customs of my hometown that when guests come to our home during the Spring Festival and we always bring out the best food and drinks to entertain them.
Minor New Year, the prologue of Spring Festival
The day one week before the Spring Festival, that is on the 23rd of the 12th month of the lunar year, is Minor New Year, when sacrifices are made to the Kitchen God. It is said on that day the Kitchen God will go to the Heaven for an annual meeting with the Jade Emperor who governs the whole Heaven and Earth. People will burn the old paper image of the Kitchen God, dispatching the God’s spirit to the Heaven to report on the family’s conduct over the past year. The Kitchen God is then welcomed back by to the home through the pasting of a new paper image of him beside the stove. There are two sorts of farewell cake, one is made of rice flour stuffed with black sesame and sugar and another stuffed with pork and tofu. The former is specially for offerings to the Kitchen God and his wife because it is said they are vegetarians. The latter is the main food of the people for the dinner after seeing off Mr. and Mrs. Kitchen God. Of course, firecrackers and incense are indispensable for the sacrificial activity, and there are three cups of tea. There is also a cup filled with some grains and straw. When I grew up, I realized that these were the fodder of the Kitchen God’s horse. When all the items are ready, my father, the head of the family burnt incense, set off firecrackers, and led the whole family members to kowtow to the Kitchen God and said goodbye to Him. From then on, three-week celebrations of the Spring Festival kick off.
Preparations Before the Eve of the Spring Festival
After the Minor New Year, the atmosphere of celebrations becomes stronger day by day. Every family is making more preparations. The most important thing is to do shopping. In the old days, the farmers in my hometown almost had no savings so they had to sell firewood in order to get money to buy some necessary stuffs for the new year, such as cloth to make new shoes and clothes, fish, sacrificial offerings, etc.
On the 28th of the last month of the lunar year, in order to welcome the new year, people usually took a bath because at that time in winter people did not take bath every day. They also cleaned the house, the yard and empty the toilet thoroughly.
The Eve of Spring Festival
On the 30th of the 12th month of the lunar year, in some year it is on 29th according to calendar, it is the last day of the lunar year. On that day the whole family usually are making preparation for the New Year’s eve dinner from the early morning. This dinner is divided into two parts, one for the ancestors, the other for the family members.
Before the New Year’s eve dinner, another important thing in this busy day is pasting spring couplets.
When all dishes are ready, it is time for the ceremony to worship ancestors, that is to say, inviting the deceased ancestors back home and treating them with a banquet. During the ancestors’ dinner, paper money are burnt for them. The Chinese people believe that when these yellow papers will become money in the nether world can be received by the deceased when they are burnt.
After the ancestors’ dinner, it is time for the family members to eat the New Year’s Eve dinner, that is, the reunion dinner. Only at this time in one year, all the dishes on the table are free to eat. The adults allow the children to eat whatever they like on the table. This is one of the most important reasons that children look forward to the New Year’s Eve. On the table of the reunion dinner, children can receive lucky money which is put in a red envelop from their parents. Even if it is small money, it can also bring happiness to the kids.
After the New Year’s Eve dinner, members of the family stay together to drink tea, eat pumpkin seeds, sun flower seeds, frozen rice brittle and candies, play cards or chat with each other until when the New Year comes after the midnight or even until daybreak. This is called “Shou Sui”, which means “ stay up to see the old year out and the new year in”. In my childhood, because there was no electricity, even when people went to bed to sleep at that night, the kerosene lamps in all the rooms kept on all night. Nowadays, people still keep the lights on all night of the New Year’s Eve.
The New Year’s Day
The next day is the New Year’s Day, the first day of the new year and the formal day of this long celebration. When people open the main gate in this morning, the first thing for them to do is to burn firecrackers and all kinds of fireworks to make as much of a din as possible to chase off the monster Year. The kids are awakened by these noises, get up in the early morning even when they stayed up very late last night, dressed in new clothes and new shoes and go to neighbour’s doors to pick up the unfired firecrackers. The adults are busy with welcoming the deities of the heavens and earth with some offerings of rooster, fish and pork, of course burning incense and kowtowing are necessary.
Since using knives and cooking raw food are considered to be bad luck on New Year’s Day, people just steam and eat the prepared food on this whole day. Spiced eggs, symbolizing wealth, are a must-eat food for breakfast. Only on this day, the adults don’t limit the number of eggs the children eat. At this time every year in my childhood, my mom bubbled a bowl of parched rice (glutinous rice) with sugar and some spiced eggs and let us kids to send to the old people in the village. In this way, people pay tribute to the old people and establish a glorious virtue and fine tradition of respecting the old for the children.
People usually stay at home and enjoy gathering-together of the family members on New Year’s Day. The next day, known as “beginning of the year” (Kai’nian) is when married daughters visit their birth parents, relatives and close friends.
Traditionally, married daughters are busy with farm or house work and do not have the opportunity to visit their birth families frequently in the my old hometown. For our children, it was the happiest time to visit my grandmother with Mom because we could be treated with delicious food and maybe lucky money and have opportunity to play with our cousins and other new friends.
Human Beings’ Birthday
The seventh day of the first month is “ Human Beings ‘ Day”. It is said that in the beginning the Goddess Nüwa created the world, and created people on the seventh day after creating animals such as chickens, dogs, pigs, sheep, cattle and horses, so this day is the birthday of Common human beings.
The Lantern Festival
After the seventh day, the atmosphere of celebration fades gradually which can be reflected from the meals people eat as usual again.
Before the dinner, a farewell banquet usually was prepared to “treat” the ancestors just the same as the welcome dinner on New Year’s eve half month ago. After the dinner, the whole family bid farewell to the ancestors and saw them off. And then the family member sat together to have our own dinner.