Today is the first day of the Chinese New Year and I’d like to take the opportunity to wish all my readers, especially those of Chinese descent, a happy and prosperous Year of the Horse. Chinese New Year marks the start of the lunisolar calendar and the spring festival. It’s a time to honour family, ancestors and the gods. It’s also a time for my son to cash in.
For those of you wondering, I’m not Chinese (the picture on my About Me page is a small clue). I’m what is referred to as a gwai low (ghost man), a white boy. ‘So, why do YOU celebrate the New Year?’ I hear you all ask. I might not be Chinese but I’ve had the pleasure of marrying into a Chinese family and, like Christmas/Easter etc., the New Year is another date on our social calendar.
Before I met my wife, I had very little understanding of the holiday and its traditions. She taught me the basics, i.e. how not to offend the Chinese community and cause her and her family to become pariahs, but the ever curious writer inside me wanted to learn more. Many of you who follow this blog are writers yourselves and, no doubt now, are also curious. With that in mind, I thought that, over the next few days, I’d share a little about the holiday, its myths, customs, and symbolism.
As with much of Chinese culture, many of the traditions of Chinese New Year stem from myth and legend and there’s no better way to hook a writer than by telling him a story. So, are you sitting comfortably?
The legend goes that in ancient China there lived a ferocious monster called Lin (Year). Lin lived deep beneath the ocean all year round but would emerge every New Year to eat cattle and people. His food of choice was children.
On New Year’s eve, the people of all the villages would flee and hide from Lin in the mountains, taking with them the elderly and the young.
One year, while the villagers were closing up their houses in preparation for the monster’s attack, a beggar arrived. They were in such a furore that most ignored the beggar and his requests for food, but a grandmother took pity on him and gave him something to eat. She told him that they must hurry and leave the village. The beggar smiled and told her, ‘if you let me stay in your house tonight, I’ll get rid of Lin for you.’ The grandmother tried to persuade the beggar to flee but he just smiled and declined. In the end, she allowed him to stay in her house and she went off to hide in the mountains.
Around midnight, Lin entered the village looking for food, but something was different from previous years. The house of the grandmother was brightly lit; cut red paper covered the door. Lin was furious and, with a howl, rushed at the house. As he approached the door, a deafening noise rang out. Bang-bang. Bang-bang. The monster dared not go any closer. The loud, exploding noises and flame-red paper were what Lin was most terrified of. And when the beggar burst from the house, dressed in red robes, it was all too much for the monster – it fled back into the sea.
When the people returned the next day, they were surprised to find their houses unharmed. The grandmother realised what had happened and told them about the beggar’s promise. They went to meet him at the grandmother’s house and found a pile of bamboo embers in the courtyard, still popping and exploding, and the red paper stuck to the door. They reasoned that this was how the beggar had driven Lin away. The happy villagers wanted to celebrate their good fortune and so dressed up in bright, new clothes and set off to visit relatives and friends and share with them the secret weapons that would rid them of Lin.
This soon became an annual tradition and people would dress in red clothing, decorate their homes with red paper, hang lanterns and light firecrackers to ward off the monster.
These ancient traditions are still very much alive today. The colour red continues to be an auspicious symbol of good luck and the Chinese dress in red clothing and light firecrackers to welcome in the New Year and ward off evil spirits and misfortune.
Tune in tomorrow for part two: how I celebrate the New Year.