The Year of the Rooster is nigh. Farmers' markets, grocery stores and malls are crowded with people doing last minute shopping for the Chinese New Year.
Bright decorations are up, and classic festive tunes are played everywhere.
Spring Festival, as the Lunar New Year holiday is popularly known, is not only a time for feasting, firecrackers and family reunions.
It is also a celebration that honors traditions dating back 4,000 years -— customs that are defining, uplifting and entertaining.
The festival is said to have originated from a monster called Nian in the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC). This monster enjoyed eating children and livestock but was afraid of the color red and loud noises.
So locals decorated their homes in red and set off firecrackers to scare Nian away.
The Year of the Rooster starts on January 28 this year, but the celebration stretches from Chinese New Year Eve to the Lantern Festival on February 11.
The eve celebration is the most important, when families congregate to eat a traditional feast, or nian ye fan.
The dinner is usually served at a slower pace than regular meals, allowing everyone ample time to trade holiday greetings and share interesting stories. The New Year's Gala show on CCTV is also part of the eve festivities. It has been televised live since 1983, presenting hours of music, comedy and dance. Even people who think the extravaganza is getting a bit dated usually leave the television on in the background.
Fish is a staple for the New Year's Eve dinner. Yu, the word for fish, is the same in pronunciation to the Chinese word for "abundance" and has come to symbolize prosperity in the coming year. Carp is the preferred fish because a carp jumping over the dragon gate signifies success, especially in passing exams.
The head and tail of the fish are left on the platter, symbolizing surplus for food and clothing, with some extra to spare.
Fish aside, the nian ye fan menu varies greatly throughout China. Each region has its own customs when it comes to festive food and beverage, and many families prepare special dishes for the occasion.
In northern provinces, jiao zi, or savory dumplings with meat or vegetable fillings, are served after the meal, usually at midnight. Some families add extra fun by placing a few coins (or nuts nowadays, for hygiene purposes) in the filling. Whoever finds them is said to have an extra lucky year ahead.
In southern China, tang yuan (rice dumplings) is the preferred choice, symbolizing reunion.
Nian gao, or rice cake, is enjoyed in both the north and south because it signifies achievement and more fortune in the New Year.
Spring rolls, noodles and various meat stews are also popular Spring Festival dishes. Snacking is also an important part of the holiday. Tables are laden with mandarin oranges, melon seeds, dried fruit, nuts and candies for post-prandial munching.
In the cold northeastern provinces like Jilin, residents traditionally eat frozen autumn pears and persimmons after dinner. Autumn pears are very hard and sour when harvested, so people put them under trees and cover them with leaves. After a freeze, the pears become sweet and juicy. They are served after defrosting in water. Locals believe the pears ease hangovers and draw the greasiness out of rich dishes.
Although Spring Festival typically falls during cold winter days, the holiday is a harbinger of the gentler season ahead. In some regions, residents eat chun bing, or "spring pancakes" to mark the coming transition. The thin flour pancakes are served with various stir-fries, like bean sprouts, spinach and fresh green scallions.
SPRING Festival taboos
LUNAR New Year tradition isn't only about customs that should be observed. It is also about things to be avoided. Most taboos are rooted in ancient superstitions — still held by older people but largely pooh-poohed by the young.
These taboos include:
• No visitors on Chinese New Year's Eve
The Chinese New Year's Eve is a time for family reunions, with sons, daughters, aunts and uncles often traveling thousands of kilometers to be together. The family time is considered sacrosanct, so intrusions from friends and acquaintances are not encouraged.
• No haircuts or shaving the head in the first lunar month
This folk tradition is still observed by some Chinese people. It dates back to when the Manchu people founded the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911). They forced adult Han Chinese men to shave the front of their heads and comb the remaining back hair into a pigtail.
For the Han, this was a humiliation and an affront to the Confucian belief that a person's body and hair, being gifts from one's parents, are not to be violated.
Manchu massacres in the latter years of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) reduced the population of the Han people by half. The first month of the lunar calendar was designated as a no-shaving time to honor si jiu (think of old times and friends). It was coincidently pronounced the same as "uncle dies," so the custom passed down to modern days as "shave the head and uncle dies."
In many places today, barbers are very busy in the run-up to the first day of the new lunar year.
• No dropping or breaking things
Dropping or breaking anything during Spring Festival is considered a harbinger of bad luck. It also serves as a reminder that people should not get carried away by success and pride.
If something is accidentally broken, one should immediately say sui sui ping an, which means "peace all year around."
• No scolding children
Tradition says that a child scolded on the first day of the new lunar year will be subject to scolding for the rest of the year. So many parents try to be extra tolerant with naughty children during Spring Festival.
• No cleaning or throwing refuse outside the door
All housecleaning should be finished before the eve of the Chinese New Year, symbolizing a fresh start.
During the first few days of the new lunar year, dumping trash or pouring water outside the front door is deemed to be casting good fortune aside. In some places, no laundry is done on the first and second days of the first lunar month as a tribute to the water gods.
• No urging people to wake up on first day of the lunar year
One should not be rousing the sleeping on New Year's Day because that dooms the person to being coerced into doing all sorts of things throughout the year. A nice traditional for those who want to start the new year lazing in bed.
It's also a no-no to utter New Year's greetings to people who are still asleep, lest they be sick abed for the duration of the year.
• No debt collections
One tradition states that persons demanding debts be paid or persons repaying debt during Spring Festival will be unlucky in the new year.