I grew up in a small mountain village in central Anhui Province in east China, which was almost isolated from the rest of the world in the old time. In my childhood, although the people in my hometown lived a rather primitive and hard life with no electricity, no tap water, no power vehicles, no motorway, and even no sufficient food supply, they still attached great importance to celebrate the Spring Festival, which is Chinese New Year or the Lunar New Year, the most important festival in China that celebrates the beginning of a new year on the traditional lunar Chinese calendar. Although today's materials have been greatly enriched, the atmosphere of celebrating and the mood of looking forward to the Spring Festival have been much less and much lighter than those at that time! The serious attitude of meticulously preparing, the traditional ceremony of offering sacrifices to ancestors, the expectation and excitement of enjoying all kinds of delicious food and wearing new clothes during the New Year, and the happy atmosphere of setting off firecrackers and visiting each other to extend the New Year's greeting have always been lingering in my memory.
- Making Spring Festival’s Traditional Foods
In China no festivals are complete without food. As the most important festival, Spring Festival is no exceptional. From the autumn of last year, people usually make preparations for making the New Year’s foods. First, sufficient firewood should be chopped from the mountains, dried and stacked up because at that time there was no electricity or coal and it relied on firewood to cook and make festival foods. In my hometown, 3 kinds of food are the most important and popular for the Spring Festival: frozen rice brittle, rice noodle and tofu. First, let me explain how to make frozen rice brittle. The main materials of frozen rice brittle are parched rice and syrup. Why is it called frozen rice? Because the cooked rice must freeze in cold winter before it gets dry in the sun. And then the dry cooked rice is put into a pot for parching until it gets swelling and crispy. The syrup is usually made from sweet potato. Mix the steamed sweet potato, malt and water and ferment for several hours. And then filter the dregs with a cloth, and boil the remaining liquid in a big pot. When the water almost evaporates, the thick black and red syrup is done. Add a proper amount of parched rice and turn it over until the syrup is evenly distributed on the surface of the rice, then put it into a mold to be compacted and cut into pieces. After cooling, it becomes sweet, fragrant and crisp frozen rice brittle. If sesame seeds and peanuts are added to the parched rice, it will be more fragrant and delicious! And next is rice noodle. The material is also rice. Wash the rice clean and soak it for a few days, then put it on a stone mill and grind it into rice paste, then scoop a proper amount of rice paste into a square white iron plate, shake it evenly, steam the plate on boiling water for a few minutes, then tear off the white-paper-like dough and air it on a bamboo pole till it becomes cool and semi-dry, then cut it into thin strips with a knife, and then dry in the sun, thus becoming rice noodles! The third home-made thing is tofu, also called bean curd. Soak the stored soybeans for two days, then grind them into paste on a stone mill, filter out the bean dregs, put the remaining soybean milk into a big pot and boil it, then scoop it into a big basin, paste it with gypsum water, and then cover it. It won’t be long before the soybean milk condenses into snow-white tofu! Squeeze out the water, and it becomes tofu or dried bean curd. Due to the limited technology, making tofu sometimes fails, which is a kind of “depending on the weather” craft, because sometimes it is really operated according to the procedure, but soybean milk just doesn’t solidify, so hard work is wasted, and beans are wasted! Often at this time, people say that this is a “ghost” making trouble, and tofu has been eaten by the “ghost”! In addition to making the above three kinds of food, one of the most important signs of celebrating Spring Festival is slaughtering pigs. In the old days, due to the limited economic conditions, every family could raise one pig every year and slaughter it before the New Year, so that it could have a “prosperous year”. The so-called “prosperous year” is not to leave all the pork to eat at home, but to sell most of the pork for money, just leaving pig blood and pig offal. The above mentioned preparations for the Chinese New Year are just for one word: food. At ordinary times, the whole family is frugal, only hoping to eat better during the New Year’s Day. Therefore, if there is anything delicious to eat, save it for the Festival. Another reason is that farmers are usually busy with farm work don’t have time to visit relatives and neighbors, so they can only make use of this holiday to visit each other. Prepare more food, also for entertaining guests. It is the tradition and folk customs of my hometown that when guests come to our home during the Spring Festival and we always bring out the best food and drinks to entertain them.
- Minor New Year, the prologue of Spring Festival
The day one week before the Spring Festival, that is on the 23rd of the 12th month of the lunar year, is Minor New Year when sacrifices are made to the Kitchen God. It is said on that day the Kitchen God will go to the Heaven for an annual meeting with the Jade Emperor who governs the whole Heaven and Earth. People will burn the old paper image of the Kitchen God, dispatching the God’s spirit to the Heaven to report on the family’s conduct over the past year. The Kitchen God is then welcomed back by to the home through the pasting of a new paper image of him beside the stove. From this vantage point, the Kitchen God will oversee and protect the household for another year. In order to say goodbye to the Kitchen God, some offerings like frozen rice brittle, sweets of various varieties and the farewell cake. Because frozen rice brittle is made of malt syrup which is sticky, it is thought that this will seal the Kitchen God’s mouth and encourage him to only say good things about the family when he ascends to Heaven to make his report. There are two sorts of farewell cake, one is made of rice flour stuffed with black sesame and sugar and another stuffed with pork and tofu. The former is specially for offerings to the Kitchen God and his wife because it is said they are vegetarians. The latter is the main food of the people for the dinner after seeing off Mr. and Mrs. Kitchen God. Of course, firecrackers and incense are indispensable for the sacrificial activity, and there are three cups of tea. There is also a cup filled with some grains and straw. When I grew up, I realized that these were the fodder of the Kitchen God’s horse. When all the items are ready, my father, the head of the family burnt incense, set off firecrackers, and led the whole family members to kowtow to the Kitchen God and said goodbye to Him. From then on, 3-week celebrations of the Spring Festival kick off.
- Preparations Before the Eve of the Spring Festival
After the minor New Year, the atmosphere of celebrations becomes stronger day by day. Every family are making more preparations. The most important thing is to do shopping. In the old days, the farmers in my hometown almost had no savings so they had to sell firewood in order to get money to buy some necessary stuffs for the new year, such as cloth to make new shoes and clothes, fish, sacrificial offerings, etc. On the 28th of the last month of the lunar year, in order to welcome the new year, people usually took a bath because at that time in winter people did not take both every day. They also cleaned the house, the yard and empty the toilet thoroughly.
- The Eve of Spring Festival
On the 30th of the 12th month of the lunar year, in some year it is on 29th according to calendar, it is the last day of the lunar year. On that day the whole family usually are making preparation for the New Year’s eve dinner from the early morning. This dinner is divided into two parts, one for the ancestors, the other for the family members. Of course the ancestors have already passed away and just exist in people’s imagination. Actually they do not eat anything, so some dishes including stewed carp, chicken and pork with brown sauce are made specially as the offerings for the ancestors and repeatedly used on the following sacrifice days as well.
Before the New Year’s eve dinner, another important thing in this busy day is pasting spring couplets. It is the most common and important custom when celebrating Chinese New Year. With black or golden characters written on red paper, Spring Couplets are composed of a pair of poetry lines vertically pasted on both sides of the front door and a four-character horizontal scroll affixed above the doorframe. Pasting couplets expresses people’s delight in the festival and wishes for a better life in the coming year. When all dishes are ready, it is time for the ceremony to worship ancestors, that is to say, inviting the deceased ancestors back home and treating them with a banquet. During the ancestors’ dinner, paper money are burnt for them. The Chinese people believe that when these yellow paper will become money in the nether world can be received by the deceased when they are burnt. Burning paper money is carried out at home, so it often makes the house full of smoke and dust. And with the smoke of firecrackers and the smell of sanitary incense, the taste of the new year is getting richer! At this moment, members of the whole family come out one after another to kowtow and worship to the ancestors to show filial piety to the old generations. The ancestors will “stay” at home and enjoy treatments including tea, rice and incent-burning every day until the 15th day of the lunar new year. After the ancestors’ dinner, it is time for the family members to eat the New Year’s Eve dinner, that is, the reunion dinner. Only at this time in one year, all the dishes on the table are free to eat. The adults allow the children to eat whatever they like on the table. This is one of the most important reasons that children are looking forward to the New Year’s Eve. On the table of the reunion dinner, children can receive lucky money which is put in a red envelop from their parents. Even if it is small money, it can also bring happiness to the kids. After the New Year’s Eve dinner, members of the family stay together to drink tea, eat pumpkin seeds, sun flower seeds, frozen rice brittle and candies, play cards or chat with each other until when the New Year comes after the midnight or even until daybreak. This is called “Shou Sui”, which means ” stay up to see the old year out and the new year in”. In my childhood, because there was no electricity, even when people went to bed to sleep at that night, the kerosene lamps in all the rooms kept on all night. Nowadays, people still keep the lights on all night of the New Year’s eve. These two traditions originate from a legend that thousands of years ago a monster named Nian (“Year”) would attack villagers at the beginning of each new year. The monster was afraid of loud noises, bright lights, and red colour, so those things were used to chase the monster away. That is why during the New Year’s days, people set off firecrackers, pasting couplets, keep lamps or lights on and stay up until after midnight.
- The New Year’s Day
The next day is the New Year’s Day, the first day of the new year and the formal day of this long celebration. When people open the main gate in this morning, the first thing for them to do is to burn firecrackers and all kinds of fireworks to make as much of a din as possible to chase off the monster Year. The kids are awaken by these noises, get up in the early morning even they stayed up very late last night, dress new clothes and new shoes and go to neighbor’s doors to picked up the unfired firecrackers. The adults are busy with welcoming the deities of the heavens and earth with some offerings of rooster, fish and pork, of course burning incents and kowtowing are necessary. Since using knives and cooking raw food are consider to be bad luck on New Year’s Day , people just steam and eat the prepared food on this whole day. Spiced eggs, symbolizing wealth, are a must-eat food for breakfast. Only on this day, the adults don’t limit the number of eggs the children eat. At this time every year in my childhood, my mom bubbled a bowl of parched rice (glutinous rice) with sugar and some spiced eggs and let us kids to send to the old people in the village. In this way, people pay tribute to the old people and establish a glorious virtue and fine tradition of respecting the old for the children.
People usually stay at home and enjoy gathering-together of the family members on New Year’s Day. The next day, known as “beginning of the year” (Kai’nian) is when married daughters visit their birth parents, relatives and close friends, traditionally, married daughters are busy with farm or house work and do not have the opportunity to visit their birth families frequently in the my old hometown. For our children, it was the happiest time to visit my grandmother with Mom because we could be treated with delicious food and maybe lucky money and have opportunity to play with our cousins and other new friends.
- Human Beings’ Birthday
The seventh day of the first month is ” Human Beings ‘ Day”. It is said that in the beginning the Goddess Nüwa created the world, and created people on the seventh day after creating animals such as chickens, dogs, pigs, sheep, cattle and horses, so this day is the birthday of Common human beings. People in our hometown do not necessarily know the origin, but only know that this day is also a festival or another “Minor New Year”, which is called “Sacrifice Day”, offering sacrifices to the Heaven and Earth and entertaining ancestors on this day. The customs are the same as those on New Year’s Day, and firecrackers are also set off in the morning when the main door is open, lamps also keeps on at night. People seldom go out to visit relatives on this day.
- The Lantern Festival
After the seventh day, the atmosphere of celebration fades gradually which can be reflected from the meals people eat as usual again. In the old days every family in my hometown lived a poor life. Our usual living standard was not high and the food we could have was not good and could eat the food every like New Year’s Day. But we still had a chance to eat a big meal, that is the Lantern Festival on the 15th day of the New Year, also known as“Yuanxiao Festival” or“Shangyuan Festival”. On this day not only we could have a big meal but also walk out carrying lighted lanterns.
Before the dinner, a farewell banquet usually was prepared to “treat” the ancestors just the same as the welcome dinner on New Year’s eve half month ago. After the dinner, the whole family bid farewell to the ancestors and saw them off. And then the family member sat together to have our own dinner.
In some years our own village and some neighboring villages also organized lion dances and dragon lantern performances and people could be crowded to enjoy the local folk song and dance performances and colorful lantern show.
The Lantern Festival pushed the festive atmosphere of the New Year to a climax, and also drew a successful conclusion to celebrate the New Year at the same time.
In view of the fact that nowadays Chinese people’s living standards are improving year by year. There is no shortage of materials, especially food and clothing, so people’s mood of looking forward to the New Year is not as strong as when I was young! Moreover, with many rural people including me moving into cities to live, the traditional customs of celebrating the New Year have been greatly improved, such as worshipping ancestors and setting off firecrackers. Therefore, the younger generation can no longer feel the strong atmosphere of Chinese New Year as I did in my childhood.
(By Wang Guiping, Chinese Embassy in Nigeria)