Today is the first day of the Chinese New Year, also known as the beginning of “Spring Festival” (春节; Chūn Jié) a major festival in Mainland China, as it has been for centuries. Celebrations traditionally run from the evening preceding the first day, to the Lantern Festival on the 15th day of the first calendar month. The first day of the New Year falls on the new moon between 21 January and 20 February. Today (2017) marks the beginning of the year of the Rooster. Traditionally, the festival was a time to honor deities as well as ancestors. Nowadays Chinese New Year is celebrated in countries and territories with significant Chinese populations all over the world.
Within China, regional customs and traditions concerning the celebration of the Chinese New Year vary widely. Often, the evening preceding Chinese New Year’s Day is an occasion for Chinese families to gather for the annual reunion dinner. It is also traditional for every family to thoroughly cleanse the house, in order to sweep away any ill-fortune and to make way for good incoming luck. Windows and doors are decorated with red color paper-cuts and couplets with popular themes of “good fortune” or “happiness”, “wealth”, and “longevity”. Other activities include lighting firecrackers and giving money in red paper envelopes.
The first day is for the welcoming of the deities of the heavens and earth, officially beginning at midnight. It is a traditional practice to light fireworks, burn bamboo sticks, and to make as much of a din as possible to chase off evil spirits. Many people, especially Buddhists, abstain from meat consumption on the first day because it is believed that this will ensure longevity for them. Some consider lighting fires and using knives to be bad luck on New Year’s Day, so all food to be consumed is cooked on the days before. On this day, it is also considered bad luck to use a broom. Most importantly, the first day of Chinese New Year is a time to honor one’s elders and families visit the oldest and most senior members of their extended families, usually their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents.
Some families may invite a lion dance troupe as a symbolic ritual to usher in the Chinese New Year as well as to evict bad spirits from the premises. Members of the family who are married also give red envelopes containing cash, known as hongbao (红包), as a form of blessing and to suppress the challenges associated with the coming year, to junior members of the family, mostly children and teenagers. Business managers also give bonuses through red packets to employees for good luck, smooth-sailing, good health and wealth.
While fireworks and firecrackers are traditionally very popular, some regions have banned them due to concerns over fire hazards. For this reason, various city governments (e.g., Kowloon, Beijing, Shanghai for a number of years) issued bans over fireworks and firecrackers in certain precincts of the city. As a substitute, large-scale fireworks display have been launched by governments in such city states as Hong Kong and Singapore. However, it is a tradition that the indigenous peoples of the walled villages of New Territories, Hong Kong are permitted to light firecrackers and launch fireworks in a limited scale. Despite the official bans, though, you’ll still find kids setting off firecrackers around the streets when they think no one is watching.
Certain dishes are eaten during the Chinese New Year for their symbolic meaning. The auspicious symbolism of these foods is based on their pronunciations or appearance. Not only do the dishes themselves matter, but also the preparation, and ways of serving and eating mean a lot. First and foremost, head and tail must be left on. Generally speaking, the Chinese prefer to buy fish alive, and even ordinary supermarkets have live fish tanks.
Fish is an important component of a New Year’s feast. In Chinese, “fish” (鱼 Yú /yoo/) sounds like ‘surplus’. What fish should be chosen for the New Year feast is based on auspicious homophonics.
Crucian carp: As the first character of crucian carp’ (鲫鱼 jìyú /jee-yoo/) sounds like the Chinese word 吉 (jí /jee/ “good luck”), eating crucian carp is considered to bring good luck for the next year.
Chinese mud carp: The first part of the Chinese for mud carp” (鲤鱼 lǐyú /lee-yoo/) is pronounced like the word for gifts (礼 lǐ /lee/). So Chinese people think eating mud carp during the Chinese New Year symbolizes wishing for good fortune.
Catfish: The Chinese for catfish” (鲶鱼 niányú) sounds like 年余 (nián yú) meaning “year surplus.” So eating catfish is a wish for a surplus in the year.
The fish should be the last dish left with some left over, as this has auspicious homophonics for there being surpluses every year. This is practiced north of the Yangtze River, but in other areas the head and tail of the fish shouldn’t be eaten until the beginning of the year, which expresses the hope that the year will start and finish with surplus.
There are some rules related to the position of the fish:
The head should be placed toward distinguished guests or elders, representing respect.
Diners can enjoy the fish only after the one who faces the fish head eats first.
The fish shouldn’t be moved. The two people who face the head and tail of fish should drink together, as this is considered to have a lucky meaning.
Fish can be cooked in various ways such as boiling, steaming, and braising. The most famous Chinese fish dishes include steamed weever, West Lake fish with pickled cabbage and chili, steamed fish in vinegar sauce, and boiled fish with spicy broth.
Fish related good luck sayings involve typical Chinese plays on word sounds. For example:
年年有余 (Niánnián yǒu yú): May you always have more than you need! (Related to catfish).
鱼跃龙门 (Yú yuè lóngmén): Success in your exam! (Fish big splash)