Spring Festival or Chinese New Year is the nearest thing China has to Christmas. It is the longest national holiday, everyone goes home to spend time together as a family, and there is special food and gift giving. However, it is very different too.
Spring Festival traditions stem from the belief that Nián, a scary monster or dragon, (and the Chinese word for year) appeared at the end of each year and could be scared away by bright lights, such as red and gold and the lights of fireworks, and by loud noises, such as firecrackers.
We chose to travel to Laos, for the ten day holiday, as we had heard that over a billion people travelling to be with family puts quite a strain on internal travel systems, and can be overwhelming for people from less densely populated countries.
As a neighbouring country, with shared ethnicity at the border, Laos has some cultural overlap with China. We saw groups of young men dressed up as Nián and wandering the streets or riding on the back of trucks. One evening a group came into our restaurant, several young men holding the dragon costume winding between the tables, and a greater number tagging along behind hoping to benefit from patrons who gave them money. We heard that restaurant owners like them to come in as they bring luck for the next year.
In Chéngdū, special Spring Festival red and gold decorations and landscaping sprang up everywhere. For example, our apartment gardeners, who have still not removed the reindeer and Santa Claus with his parasol, hung up red lanterns with gold tassels, and draped the bottom of the large trees in gold. In the central garden bed, they planted red tulips, timing their full bloom for New Years day (28 January), circled by light yellow plants. In the walkway to the convenience store, they placed pots with yellow orchids surrounded by pots with deep pink cyclamen. And around the fountains, they also continued the red and yellow flowers in pots theme. My Chinese language company offered a free deal for a red and gold door decoration, which I said yes to, but it never turned up. (Or if it did, I couldn’t read the text saying it was here.)
Firecrackers are an important part of Spring Festival. There did not seem to be just one time that they are lit, but different times through the season. Some were let off before we left Chéngdū. In Laos, firecrackers were being let off on New Years Eve and into the wee hours of New Years Day. Then, we were treated to a nice fireworks display out our window soon after we returned nearly a week later. And my Chinese teacher explained that the first Monday when people return to work they light firecrackers for a lucky start to the work year. During my lesson that day, I could hear them going off in the background in Guăngzhōu and she could hear them going off in the background in Chéngdū, over 1,000 km apart.
And Spring Festival is the time to sell anything and everything. The Exhibition Centre near us had a Spring Festival sale, where crowds of people thronged to pick up bargains to give to family, friends, work colleagues, and anyone else you feel obliged to give to. We did not go, but saw the crowds lugging, or, in some cases, wheeling, their many purchases. Our supermarket, that we view as very busy on an ordinary day, was chaotic. More people navigating extra stock piled up in any spare space between aisles. (We picked up some bargains in the post Spring Festival sales, which don’t seem holiday specific to us.)
Like most workplaces, Raymond’s school had an annual dinner before the holiday. We both wore red, because we understood that was appropriate and we try to fit in. I sat next to the school’s Chinese teacher, who commented on the effort we had put in, even though most locals did not bother. All red outfits belonged to ex-pats.
Two traditional things happened – a performance and a lottery. The lottery process was giving a ‘red packet’ with money in (NZD20) to those whose names were drawn out of a hat – Raymond included in the lucky ones. I told my Chinese teacher, who is becoming a regular source of information on Chinese culture now that we have moved beyond ‘hello, my name is …’, that we had been to his school dinner. The first question she asked was if they had had a lottery. And when I helped my Chinese colleague translate her speech for my business partners’ other company’s dinner into English, it included introducing the lottery. So, it is obviously standard. As well as this, the teachers gave their bus driver a red packet, and we gave one to our regular driver when he drove us to the airport for our holiday.
And parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles give children red packets. But only children. My work colleague in her mid twenties is too old for red packets or presents from her parents, even though she went back to her village to celebrate with them. Whereas, Hazel, our brand new granddaughter, got red packets from her Chinese grandmother and great-aunt before she turned a month old. She was not due until after Chinese New Year, but arrived three weeks early – obviously very smart.
The teachers union gave Raymond a parcel. Some things were easy to spot like wine , nuts, rice and red date honey. Other things, less so. We filled in an evening, photographing characters and translating them to work out what they were. Now we have to work out how to cook with them. We gave the jars of dried fungi – (super sized) log, and ordinary – to Raymond’s colleague.
The fifteenth day of the first lunar month of the new year, is Lantern Festival day. Our local Egypt-themed Lantern Festival, set up in the grounds of one of Chéngdū‘s museums, ran for a few weeks leading up to the 12 Feb. We were back in time to be able to visit during last weekend. The Festival was stunning, during the day and then as night fell lighting up the dark.
We snacked on savoury and sweet dumplings, listening to a recorded voice trying to sell what we were eating – to our ears it sounded like ‘Go Billy Bowser’. So, then I wanted to understand what she was saying. I recognised enough of the characters over the stall to know translating those would give the answer, much to the amusement of the woman wiping down the tables. She stood for quite a while behind me, studying my laborious attempts to work it out on my phone. Once Raymond had pointed her out, I invited her to write the final character which had been proving a challenge for me. ‘Heavenly saliva dog ignore dumplings’. Later, my Chinese teacher pointed out the inadequacy of direct translations, which was quite reassuring given that we ate before translating.
As we walked back to the metro, through the crowds and beautiful lights, we commented on how these fragile silk-encased frames would never work in a windy environment. We were both quite amused picturing them slowly disintegrating in the Wellington winds before the three weeks was up, parts floating in the Wellington harbour and the rest strewn all over the city .
So, we feel that we caught intermittent glimpses of what Spring Festival or Chinese New Year means to everyone in our adopted home, but that we did not experience it fully. However, I am not sure how realistic full experience will ever be, given its deep significance and associated tradition for locals.
Anyway, it is over now – let’s see what this year of the rooster brings!