New Years Day is a special time for all the peoples of the world. It marks the end of one thing and the beginning of another, although not necessarily in that order. Its a time for reflection, resolutions and starting off with a new slate, so to speak. Both the Oriental and the Western worlds celebrate with the same spirit, especially in terms of superstition and folklore. You may be surprised how many traditions overlap both cultures, and how many we might have even taken from their philosophy! (After all, they were there first.)
In Chinese tradition, firecrackers always accompany welcoming in the new year and saying goodbye to the old. On the stroke of midnight on New Years Eve, every door in the house, and every window, has to be open in order to allow the old year out. Western midnight activities usually involve kissing (much more pleasant), and the problem is that once one gets started, its difficult to concentrate on the doors and windows. Still, we kiss those we love because it is supposed to ensure their affections for the coming year, and to fail to do so sets the stage for a year of icy frigidaire.
Both cultures have made the connection that what we do on January first determines our fate for the rest of the year. According to the Chinese, if you cry on New Years Day, you will cry throughout the year. Knives and scissors should be avoided, as their use may cut off fortune. No references to the old year are allowed after midnight, as everything must be geared to a new beginning. One should not wash ones hair on this holiday either, for it means one will have washed away good luck for the coming year.
The Chinese New Year begins with the first New Moon of the new year and ends on the full moon 15 days later. The fifteenth day of the new year is referred to as The Lantern Festival, which is celebrated at night with children and adults carrying lanterns in a grand parade. Both New Years Eve and New Years Day are family affairs; a time of reunion and thanksgiving that is highlighted by religious ceremonies honoring ancestors. A family banquet known as "surrounding the stove" is usually arranged in which the spirit of the ancestors together with the living celebrate the new year together.
Our New Year, as we all know, has nothing at all to do with our ancestors or moons, (full, half, blue or otherwise). It begins the night before the first of the year and continues until we are finished celebrating (or run out of things to celebrate with; booze, people, other strange things). Some of us have parades (The Mummers of Philadelphia for example), but most of us are too wrapped up in either over-celebration or non-celebration to even notice parades, much less participate.
Cleaning the house before New Years Day is one Chinese tradition that many westerners dont follow. All cleaning equipment must be put away out of sight. Dusting is avoided (no problem for me anytime) for fear that good fortune will be swept away. Nothing, not even garbage, must leave the house on the first day of the new year. Dirt and dust must always be swept inwards and then carried outside via the back door of the house to insure that no harm will follow. (Was this the source of Faulkners classic title, Intruder in the Dust, or was that just a coincidence?)
Paying off bills and personal debts before January the first is important to ensure that the new year begins debt free. The Chinese neither lend nor borrow money on New Years Day as they believe that anyone who does so will be lending and borrowing all the following year. It is also traditional to wear brand new clothes and preferably the color red. Generally, red is considered a festive, bright and happy color. Children also should wear brand new clothes and shoes.
In Western tradition, the first person to enter the home after the stroke of midnight will influence the events of the coming year. Blonde and red headed "first footers" are said to auger bad luck, while dark-haired types, particularly tall ones bearing gifts are more welcome. The Chinese carry this concept a bit further by not greeting people in mourning or anyone in the bedroom of the house. Even the sick get dressed (in something red of course) and are encouraged to share germs and conversation with other friends and relatives in the family living room.
So be on the safe side this New Years Eve and dont do anything rash to offend the gods that be. Dont drop your chopsticks and dont even think about mentioning the number four, which is the Chinese homonym for death. Think joyful numbers, like two and three and twelve. Greet others with "Gung Hey Fat Choy," which means "wishing you prosperity and wealth." If you cant pronounce it too well, dont worry. You can always revert back to the old standard line sung to the tune of Auld Lang Syne:
"Happy New Year!"
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