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Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Unraveling history and traditions of Chinese New Year

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Filipino and Chinese peoples share a centuries-old bond, connected through years of migration, trade, and cultural exchange. This vibrant tapestry is especially evident during Chinese New Year, a festival that explodes with color, sound, and mouthwatering flavors in China and the Philippines.

Chinese New Year, also known by many as Lunar New Year or Spring Festival, is China’s most relevant festival. The Chinese lunar calendar determines the date of the new year, which usually falls between January 21 and February 20.

The celebration’s history goes back to about 3,500 years ago. Its customs have undergone long developmental progress and are the festivities people embrace today.

From myths to an annual tradition

 Despite the rich history of Chinese New Year, there’s no available record of the date people began celebrating it. Some believe it originated in the Shang Dynasty (1600 to 1046 B.C.), when people held sacrificial ceremonies for their gods and ancestors at the beginning and end of each year.

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Many legends shroud the authentic origins of the celebration. One popular legend is that thousands of years ago, a monster named Nian, which translates to year, would attack villagers at the beginning of each new year. Fortunately, Nian was afraid of loud noises, bright lights, and things with the color red. The villagers used these things to chase the monster away. Thus, the New Year celebration and its practices were born.

The succeeding dynasties then had initiatives to improve the details surrounding the Chinese New Year. During the Han Dynasty (202 BC to 220 AD), the date of the festival fell on the first month of the Chinese Lunar Calendar. Burning bamboo to make a loud crackling sound became a popular celebration activity to usher in the new year.

Chinese culture is known to have a significant influence on Filipino cuisine. Photo from Foodiesfeed by Jakub Kapusnak

People eventually began entertaining themselves during the new year, apart from worshiping gods and ancestors, in the Wei and Jin dynasties (220–420 AD). The family customs like gathering to clean house, having dinner, and staying up late on New Year’s Eve originated among everyday people.

The prosperity of economies and cultures during the Tang, Song, and Qing dynasties accelerated the development of the Spring Festival. The customs during the festival became similar to those of modern times. Some traditions are setting off firecrackers, visiting relatives and friends, and eating dumplings became essential parts of the celebration.

As the years passed, the function of the Chinese New Year celebrations became more entertaining and social than religious, as it is today. Other activities like watching dragon and lion dances or enjoying lantern shows became more prevalent among the public.

In modern times, more festivities emerged, much to the public’s delight. Some examples include concerts, pageants, and more.

Some Chinese New Year Traditions

Like the New Year celebrations, according to the Gregorian calendar, the Lunar New Year also has several surprises and activities for the public. A common practice among Filipinos who want to share in the festivities with their Chinese friends and family is visiting Binondo, or the famous Chinatown in Manila, to witness firsthand several traditional ways to welcome the new year and usher in luck.

The Lunar New Year, for many, is the ideal time to have a fresh start and define how the rest of the year will turn out. As such, many engage in feng shui to learn their fortune and embrace the best ways to welcome prosperity or even practice well-known Chinese superstitions.

Chinese superstitions adapted in the Philippines are known for bringing luck and warding off misfortune. For instance, superstitions like paying off debts before the year’s end signify leaving bad financial habits in the past and facing the future free of monetary constraints.

Other examples are taking medicine, using sharp objects, and gifting clocks or scissors, which are bad omens. Meanwhile, wearing torn, damaged, black, or white will invite bad luck. Instead, one should opt for red or polka-dotted clothing to symbolize positive energy, luck, and wealth.

In households, those celebrating the Lunar New Year fill their rice and water containers to the brim, display coins throughout the house, and open all doors, windows, cabinets, and drawers to welcome luck into every possible space. Some even immerse in general cleaning of their space to symbolize a fresh start for another year.

Those who believe in the power of charms and a balance within their homes also visit feng shui experts to get their insights.

Besides embracing superstitious beliefs, the public celebrates Chinese New Year in various ways. One is sharing a reunion dinner on the Lunar New Year’s Eve. However, the dishes served should have at least eight ingredients because the number eight symbolizes prosperity. It’s also relevant to remember that having an abundance of food on the table is believed to signify abundance throughout the year.

While hosts can choose from various dishes, they should always have tikoy available. Tikoy, or nian gao, sometimes translated as New Year cake or Chinese New Year’s cake, is a food prepared from glutinous rice flour and consumed in Chinese cuisine.

Another thing that many people look out for during the Chinese New Year is ampaos or ang paos. These are red envelopes that contain money. Traditionally, elders give these to children to wish for their safety and well-being throughout the year. 

Businesses or commercial establishments also have their fair share of Chinese New Year traditions. The most popular is the lion dance, accompanied by loud drum beats to symbolize the loud noises the beast from legend feared. Some believe it brings luck and prosperity to its witnesses.

While globalization continues to reshape our world, the Chinese New Year in the Philippines takes on new shades, adapting and merging with local traditions. From Binondo’s bustling streets to home-cooked tikoy shared with loved ones, the festival pulsates with a dynamic energy, ever-evolving while staying true to its core.

As we step into this new year, may we carry the lessons of the past, the warmth of community, and the spirit of embracing the richness that comes from diverse cultural threads interwoven into a single, vibrant tapestry.

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