February 3rd marks the beginning of the Year of the Rabbit, and for many of you that might be the extent of your knowledge of Chinese New Year (or as we call it in China, Spring Festival). So today we’ll look at how Spring Festival is celebrated.
For most Chinese, it means returning to their hometown. Almost half of China’s population no longer lives in the same town as they were born, which leads to the largest annual human migration. The whole country is moving the few weeks before and after the holiday.
The typical family will celebrate by coming together for the biggest meal they can afford, and will watch the special Spring Festival tv program, or play mahjong; many will light off a few fireworks. Within a family all of the children will receive 红包 (hongbao), which are red envelopes with some money inside.
Let’s look at each of those parts a little closer.
Heading home means bringing back their earnings from the year, and showering their family with gifts. Many of my friends complain about how expensive Spring Festival is, it’s kind of like Christmas if you had to give gifts to your parents and children, but didn’t receive anything yourself. The pressure is so great that theft always peaks just before Spring Festival.
The huge meal is probably the most important part of Spring Festival. Each food has a special meaning. For example: Fish (鱼,Yu) sounds like abundance (余, yu). So the expression “Every year is abundant” also sounds like “Have fish every year”. The meal will have as many dishes as the family can afford, and pretty much every dish has a double meaning (Wikipedia has a good list of these). This part is usually compared to Thanksgiving.
Every year CCTV (the official state media), puts on a massive set of performances. Often it lasts 6 or more hours, and is rerun for weeks. It includes “funny” skits, famous singers, ethnic minority dances, and a touch of traditional opera. I was so surprised the first time I asked the students what they did for Spring Festival because practically everybody said “watch TV.”
At midnight, every day for 2 weeks, fireworks light up the sky. On my first Spring Festival in Beijing we had been told that fireworks were banned in the city center. Apparently nobody else was told, the fireworks lasted for hours. It was one of the most amazing things I have ever witnessed.
Hongbao is what children’s minds leap to when they hear “Spring Festival.” Hongbaos are given to them by all of their elder relatives, often adding up to more than a hundred dollars, which is a massive haul for a Chinese child. Toy sales explode like Black Friday.
When I was learning Chinese, we were taught a phrase 热闹 (renao), which literally means hot and noisy. The usage though means something like a crazy, wild celebration. The professor said that until we spent Spring Festival in China, we couldn’t fully understand the meaning. They were right.