The Spring Festival
The first day of the first month in Chinese lunar calendar is Spring Festival, the most important traditional festival, celebrated by Han people and some ethnic minorities in China. Ever since the Emperor Wu’s Reign of Han Dynasty (140 BC) the festival has been regarded as the happiest day. When that day comes, children will set off firecrackers in streets. Even the adults like to bid farewell to the old year and usher in the new. Wang Anshi, a well-known poet of North Song Dynasty, wrote the following verses to vividly portray the joyful atmosphere in the celebration:Firecrackers are sending the old year away;People are toasting in warm spring breeze.All the families are bathed in bright sunlight;Old couplets are changed with new ones.
Actually, people start to be busy even before Spring Festival comes. They, old and young, whitewash walls and wash the sheets, expecting to greet the new year with everything fresh and clean. Families prepare red bean buns and vegetable buns, not for themselves only, but also for visitors. They all go shopping and keep in storage a lot of delicious food in the home. Or they’ll have a “miserable” Spring Festival as shops are closed then, and the bosses and the assistants will go home to celebrate the festival with their dear ones.
One of the necessary activities during the Spring Festival is to post pictures including the blessing and fortune making types, like a child holding a shoe-shaped gold ingot in his arms or riding on a huge carp, and also including the disaster dispelling or good-luck fetching types, like warrior pictures on the gates and so on. Shen Shu and Yu Lu were brothers who had the power to kill monsters and conquer ghosts as the legend told. So all the households liked to post their pictures on the gates for luck and happiness in Nan Dynasty. In Tang Dynasty, Qin Shubao and Yuchi Jinde were the two most respectable generals among people, and so their pictures were posted on the gates. Even today the generals are still worshiped as gods in many areas of China and their pictures are posted in Spring Festivals to bring auspicious air. In some districts, especially in rural areas, people post Zhong Kui’s pictures on gates to dispel evils and fetch good luck, as it is said, and was appointed “ghost-killer general” by God of all gods after his death, leading 3,000 immortal soldiers to kill monsters and ghosts, enjoying a high fame among people.
The last day of the old year, Daniansanshi in Chinese, is called Farewell Day, as the old year is sent away this day. On the night of this day (Eve of lunar New Year), the family members sit together, chatting, sipping tea, cracking melon or sunflower seeds, eating fried dough twists and other snack foods. People, who work in other parts of the country, will come back to join their families. Their major activity on the eve now is to watch Spring Festival Galas, which usually last from 8 to 12 at night. While watching, chatting, they enjoy themselves very much. Many families make dumplings then, eating some, keeping the rest for the next day. Of course, people eat not only dumplings, but also varieties of refreshments in Spring Festival, such as candy cakes, sweet soup balls, jujube buns and so on. Children will eat as much as they can at sight of so many delicious things, and some will spoil their stomachs with too much eating. Money is handed out to the young as lucky gifts either on the eve or on New Year’s Day. It is one of the reasons that children long for Spring Festivals as they can make a small fortune out of the sizable sums of gift money which almost all children might get.
Even before the dawn of New Year’s Day comes, firecrackers crack everywhere, as noisily as bean frying. Parents boil dumplings for their kids, who will clean their mouths and dash out when having eaten enough. The little ones gather in streets, setting off all kinds of firecrackers, named Rockets, Rolling Mines, Fairy Scattering Flowers, Knights in Red and so on. There are so many of them! The adults, however, are busy paying New Year calls from door to door. Leaders of companies will carry on the tradition of “enjoying with the mass”, paying visits to his men, saying blessing words, like “happy Spring Festival” and “wishing you prosperity”.
The custom of paying New Year’s visits comes from ancient times. As the legend goes that there was a monster called Nian, who would come out of the mountains in search of people for food. People were so scared that they put meat at door for the monster, and they themselves hid in houses. The next day they’d open the doors and congratulate each other on being alive. Later they’d not only say blessing words when they paid visits, but also change New Year’s cards printed with beautiful pictures or smart words.
When celebrating Spring Festivals, people never forget their dead dear ones. They’ll toast for their wealth, or burn incenses, praying that god might bless their dead in nether world. Some families will go to the tombs of their dead, and place jujube buns and fried cakes before the tombs as tributes. Nowadays cremation is encouraged, people will hold memorial ceremonies in places where ashes of their dead are kept, bringing joyful air of the festival to their eternal resting place.
Lion Dancing is also a custom prevailing in the south and the north of the country. All those dancings are very much the same in forms and contents. Villages in rural areas compete with each other to be the best in Lion Dancing, and communities in the cities also fight for the honor. Two men form a “lion”, one acting as the “head”, and the other the “body”. The one as “head” is the key figure, who, trained in early childhood, is usually agile and fast. In competition, two lions, representing two sides, dance energetically in accompaniment of gongs and drums, struggling to snatch a huge silk ball with widely-opened mouths. The players in stage costumes jump and leap, bend and rise, displaying great vitality and vigor. The dancing fully shows the exuberant strength and the indomitable struggle spirit of Chinese nation. The “lion head” is supposed to present a few dangerous moves, such as jumping on piles of chairs and tables, just to win warm applause of the audience.
In some districts prevails the custom of Dragon Dancing, which, like Lion Dancing, is also one of the important activities to greet the coming spring. A few men form a “dragon’, one acting as the “head”, and the rest the “body”. The gigantic dragon strides proudly ahead, making threatening gestures, assuming an air of complacency, winning loud applauses of the audience from time to time. Spectators’ hearts will tremble as the huge dragon trembles, and they really admire the dragon players for their super skills. Dragon Dancing at night is a spectacular sight. The two eyes of the huge dragon, usually two electric torches in fact, are eyes with piercing gleam, shooting lights through the dark sky, reminding people of its fight with a monster. Spectators’ blood surges, as if they themselves joined the fight with evil forces.
The Lantern Festival in the 15th day of the new lunar year, known as Minor Spring Festival in some areas, is celebrated in boisterous atmosphere, though it is not as important as the first day or second day of the new lunar year. Shops and peddlers put out colorful lanterns on show, lanterns in forms of Na Zha’s Adventure in East Sea, Monkey King, Pigsy, Sha Wujing, pigs, cats, dogs, rabbits and other small animals. Candles are placed inside lanterns, twinkling at night, and the Pigsys and dogs all shine brightly, a beautiful scene to see. Lion Dancing, Dragon Dancing, Land Boat Rowing and Stilt Walking in the candlelight present splendid pictures. There is a sea of people in parks to celebrate, buying all kinds of delicious things for a taste at booths and stalls, playing games, like casting circles and shooting…Excited, children run to and fro in the crowds, shouting loudly, stopping to buy with their gift money baubles at times, which strike their fancy.
The custom of Lantern Festival Celebration comes from Tang Dynasty. At night, people step out of their houses with lanterns, and all the lanterns with their bright lights form magnificent sights. In ancient times, lanes and streets were decorated with official money, when fireworks and lanterns were everywhere to be seen. During Emperor Ruizong’s Reign in Tang Dynasty, there just outside the royal palace in Changan, the capital then, was built up a mountain of lanterns to celebrate the festival, nearly 70 meters high, decorated with colorful ribbons, trimmings and 50,000 lanterns. People would go in pairs or groups, to watch lantern shows, fireworks displays and acrobatic feats. In Song Dynasty, Crossword Guessing was added to the programs of celebration. Crossword puzzles written on scrolls were glued to the lower parts of lanterns, and the winners of the guessing work could get a few small gifts. The Lantern Festival became more lively in Ming Dynasty. Opera actors then would offer performances in streets, bringing people artistic entertainment and laughter.
During Lantern Festival, people mainly eat yuanxiao (or called sweet soup balls) which are glutinous rice balls with various kinds of stuffing, like black sesames, sugar, haws and so on. They are much the same both in the south and the north. The southerners also like rice balls stuffed with meat. Nowadays the balls vary with all different types of stuffing, to be suitable for various tastes.
During Lantern Festival, a new heat of visiting occurs, which, however, lasts only a few days. When it is over, people will thoroughly concentrate on their work.