The Spring Festival – an insight into the festivities of the Chinese New Year

Chinese New Year © Adrian Cheah

The Chinese observe many festivals, some religious and some secular. The most important celebration however is the Spring Festival, more commonly known today as the Chinese New Year or the Lunar New Year.

According to experts, the Chinese Lunar New Year is the longest chronological record in history, dating from 2600BC, when the Emperor Huang Ti introduced the first cycle of the zodiac. Unlike the Gregorian calendar, the start of the Chinese Lunar Calendar can fall anywhere between late January and the middle of February. A complete cycle takes 60 years and is made up of five cycles of 12 years each. Because of this, Chinese New Year changes each year, as it falls on the first day of the lunar calendar.

Why it is also called the Spring Festival

Why is the Chinese New Year also known as the Spring Festival? Astrologers describe springtime as a season of renewal, when new life springs forth after the cold and passiveness of winter. Similarly, the Chinese New Year is a time of fresh beginning.


The 20th day of the 12th Moon is set aside for the annual house cleaning, where every corner of the house must be swept and cleaned with bamboo leaves or a broom in preparation for the new year. Debts should be paid, hair, cut and coiffed as well as new clothes and shoes, bought.

An auspicious 'chai' or red banner bearing well wishes of wealth and prosperity is hung over the front door. Propitious sounding couplets like "peace on your coming and going" and "big prosperity coming in a big way" are hung at entrances.

The Kitchen God, regarded as the inventor of fire, leaves the house on the 23rd of the last month to report to heaven on the behaviour of the family.

Chinese New Year © Adrian Cheah

Although the household would have done all they could to ensure a favourable report, no chances are taken and the Kitchen God's mouth and lips are sweetened and if need be, sealed with a sweet meat called ti Kuih (a homophonic word which means both 'auspicious year' and 'sticky cake' in Hokkien). With lips sufficiently sugar coated and safely closed, he is given a grand send off, only to return once more on the first day of the Lunar New Year.

In many Chinese homes and temples, incense and joss sticks are burned as a mark of respect to their ancestors.

Time for reunion dinners and welcoming of the new year

It is important that all immediate members of the family be together during this time. As some live far away, the journey home for them begins a few days before Chinese New Year. The significance of the reunion and excitement of the big dinner to follow makes such trips back home an event in itself. No matter how tired one may be after the journey, all family members are present during the reunion dinner.

The dishes served, needless to say, are not things that are found on the table every day! All dishes have auspicious names or use ingredients that sound auspicious, for example fish, prawns, abalone, dried oysters, lettuce, black sea moss (fatt choy), long noodles, lotus seeds, ginkgo nuts, dried bean curd and bamboo shoots.

Must-have snacks include mandarin oranges, roasted pumpkin or melon seeds and peanuts. Eating eight types of such auspicious foods is believed to bring plenty of luck to the family.

To usher in the new year, family members young and old do not sleep. To keep awake, they will spend the night playing cards, mahjong, watching festive TV programmes, playing with fireworks or just have a good time chatting with one another.

The 15 days of Chinese New Year

On the 1st day of Chinese New Year, celebrants wear new clothes, shoes, jewellery and elaborate hair dos. So attired, homage is first paid at the altar of the ancestors. Then a prayer of thanks is offered to the gods.

Family members will greet their elders with a hearty "Kong Xi Fatt Chai" (in Mandarin) or "Kong Hei Hat Cai" (in Hokkien), which means "congratulations and prosperity". In return, the unmarried will receive red packets (hong bao) containing cash from parents, married family members and friends.

The 7th day of Chinese New Year is known as "everybody's birthday". On this day, Chinese businessmen will feast on "Yee Sang", a dish of pickled ginger, shredded vegetables, lime, raw fish, raw cuttlefish and various sauces. This meal is believed to ensure prosperity and good fortune to those who eat it. The diners will mix and toss the ingredients as high as they can with their chopsticks. The higher they can toss, the greater the prosperity they will enjoy throughout the year.

Chinese New Year © Adrian Cheah

The 9th day is an especially significant one for the Hokkien community. Some traditionalists venture as far as to say that for the Hokkiens, the 9th day is even more important than the New Year itself, for it is on this day that the entire Hokkien clan were spared from being massacred.

Chinese New Year © Adrian Cheah

Preparation begins on the morning of the 8th day, Hokkiens will rush to the market to buy all the essential items needed for the celebration – sugar cane stalks, roasted pigs, cooked meats and fruits. At the stroke of midnight, they will give thanks to the Jade Emperor, also known as the God of Heaven. Firecrackers are let off and the night sky is ablaze with sky rockets and fireworks. Businessmen of the Hokkien community take the festival quite seriously – their bountiful offerings are both thanksgiving and votive in nature, in anticipation of a propitious year ahead. For the Hakkas, eating nine kinds of vegetables on the ninth day is a must. Numerous offerings are set out in the forecourt or central courtyard of temples to celebrate the birthday of the Jade Emperor.

Chap Goh Meh © Adrian Cheah

The 15th day marks the end of the New Year. For the Hokkiens, the 15th night is also known as Chap Goh Mei. In Penang, the Hokkien community commemorates this day with the Chingay – a parade where stilt walkers, lion and dragon dancers, and acrobats move slowly along the busy streets of Georgetown, to the beat of gongs, drums and cymbals.

During the golden era of the Babas and Nyonyas, Chap Goh Meh in Penang is often celebrated as a sort of Chinese Valentine's Day. It is said that in those days, maidens would ride along the coastal roads to throw mandarin oranges into the sea while expressing the wish to meet a good husband. It was held that wishes made on this night were more willingly granted by the heavenly powers.

Although Dondang Sayang groups still go around town to serenade the Chap Goh Meh revellers, singing their pantuns from illuminated buses, this form of entertainment is quite obsolete today. Sadly, those who really appreciate the pantuns and songs are way above fifty, and the younger generation is unable or uninterested to join in the singing.

Beliefs and taboos

During the New Year, the Chinese observe closely certain strong taboos and beliefs, some of which are spiritual in nature. For example, a break is observed on the third day of the fifteen-day long celebration of the New Year. Businesses remain closed, and visiting is discouraged on that day, for it is believed that misfortune may befall the family otherwise.

Also, no one is allowed to sweep the floor on the first day of the New Year as it is would sweep away all of one's good luck and fortune! Anyone caught sweeping during this auspicious period will be given a severe tongue lashing.

The rice urn should be cleaned out and fresh new rice put in and filled to the brim. Alternatively, a packet of uncooked rice sporting a red paper cutting can be displayed. A fresh new ang pow containing money must also be placed underneath the rice. One is also obliged to have a minimum of two or more helpings of food at every meal over the 15 days as it symbolises an abundance of food.

Saying nice things to other people first thing in the morning effectively brings goodwill from everyone you meet. Wearing new clothes on the 1st day of Chinese New Year brings goodness into your life. Wearing an article of clothing that is red is considered most auspicious. Single people often wear red undergarments. As a taboo, all vulgarity and harsh words are prohibited, so as to avoid scandals over the course of the year. Losing one's temper is also a no-no, as it indicates a year full of conflict and bad temper. Remember all of these by heart, and enjoy a year of abundance, wealth and prosperity.

Written and photographed by Adrian Cheah
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