A time for family reunions, the lion dance, firecrackers, mahjong, mandarin oranges and giving/receiving ang pow, the Lunar New Year – or Chinese New Year (CNY), as it is more commonly known in Malaysia – highlights some of the most fascinating aspects of Chinese tradition and rituals.
Its origin can be traced back thousands of years, to the legend which tells of a fearsome mythological creature known as Nian that is said to have once terrorised China, devouring people on the eve of CNY. To ward off the beast, red-paper couplets were pasted on doors, firecrackers were set off throughout the night, and huge fires were lit.
Today, the prevalence of the colour red, and firecrackers, form part of the CNY celebrations throughout the world, as a part of custom and tradition.
The festival, which once also marked the beginning of spring in China, begins on the first day of the lunar calendar year, the first day of the new moon, and ends on the 15th day, known as Chap Goh Meh, the last day of the full moon.
However, celebrations are normally confined to the first few days and the last day. In Malaysia, the first two days are gazetted as public holidays.
Preparing for celebrations
Preparations tend to begin a month prior to the New Year, when people start buying new clothes, decorations and foodstuff. Houses are cleaned from top to bottom, and decorated with red lanterns; banners; plastic or paper firecrackers (the real item is prohibited); panels inscribed with calligraphic characters bearing themes of happiness, wealth and longevity; and greeting cards received from well-wishers.
The eve of CNY is probably the high point of the celebration as it is on this day that family members , no matter how far they are, return home for the reunion dinner, to rekindle family ties and enjoy the sumptuously prepared meals. It has become increasingly common for the reunion dinner to take place not at homes, but at restaurants that have set menus catered specially for the occasion.
Dinner is usually made up of seafood and dumplings; delicacies include waxed duck, prawns, braised dried oysters, scallops and “prosperity vegetables”.
After the reunion feast, entire families will try to stay up all night in adherence to shou sui, a practice which is believed to bring one’s parents longevity. To while away the hours, it is common for many to gamble; the sound of mahjong chips clattering against each other throughout the night is not uncommon.
At the stroke of midnight, the New Year is ushered in. Firecrackers and fireworks are prohibited, so the requisite din to herald the New Year falls upon human voices and song, and modern “improvisations” such as the recorded sounds of exploding firecrackers.
Kong Hee Fatt Choy!
With daylight, homes again become a buzz of activity. Ceremonial candles are lit, incense burned, new clothes (red is the custom) are put on, and greetings of “Kong Hee Fatt Choy” or “nian nian you yu” (which means “may every year be filled with extras”) are uttered.
As is commonplace among Malaysians during both religious and cultural festivities, Chinese families invite their relatives and friends over to their homes during CNY. Guests arrive bearing gifts of mandarin oranges or kam, which symbolises gold or wealth.
It is also customary for married couples to give children and unmarried adults money inserted in red packets known as ang pow, as a gesture to mean that the recipient will enjoy a fruitful and healthy/wealthy life.
Beliefs and tradition
The celebration of CNY is not all freewheeling fun though, as there are taboos and beliefs, some of which are spiritual in nature, that need to be observed.
For example, though the feasting generally goes on for the whole 15-day period, a break, of sorts, is taken on the third day. Businesses remain closed, and visiting is discouraged on that day, as it is believed that, otherwise, misfortune may befall the family.
Also, no one is allowed to sweep the floor on the first day of the New Year as it is considered unlucky; that one would accidently sweep away one’s good luck and fortune if they do so.
As a contrast, what is believed to bring good fortune and ward off evil is the lion which, according to legend, was the only animal that managed to wound the Nian. This gave rise to the lion dance, as the villagers of the story tried to mimic the lion in their attempt to frighten the beast away.
Here in Malaysia, troupes of lion dancers travel in trucks during the 15-day period to perform at individual homes and businesses, even hotels and shopping complexes. It is one of the most spectacular sights during this period, where performers regularly shimmy up poles to pick up ang pows, while moving to the beat of the drums.
On the seventh day of CNY, which is considered as the birthday of all human beings, the Cantonese community partakes in a dish called yee sang, a simple mixture of thin slices of raw fish, shredded vegetables, herbs and sauces.
All the ingredients for the dish are served separately on the same plate, and would then be tossed and mixed, carried with chopsticks high in the air by all at the table, while saying out loud the word loh hei, which means liveliness, prosperity and longevity. This practice is said to herald prosperity for the coming year.
The eighth day is a time for prayer. The Hokkien community performs a ritual where offerings are made to Tian Gong, the God of Heaven. This often extends into the ninth day.
The 15th and last day, Chap Goh Meh, is observed in several ways. In Penang, the Hokkien community commemorates this day with a parade (Chingay parade) where stilt walkers, lion and dragon dancers, and acrobats move along the busy streets of Georgetown, to the beat of gongs, drums and cymbals.
However, the highlight of Chap Goh Meh, which is often regarded as the Chinese Valentine’s day, has got to be the throwing of oranges into the river. It is believed that maidens would attract good husbands if they adhere to this practice.