This year on the blog we‘re looking to explore a variety of cultural traditions. Today, we’ve found out more about Chinese New Year…
First established in Horsham in 1855, Freeman Brothers Funeral Directors is the town’s longest-serving business! The company now has further offices across West Sussex – in Billingshurst, Crawley and Hurstpierpoint – thereby serving an increasingly diverse population. With this in mind, the team believe it’s important to widen their perspective on cultural backgrounds – Community Co-Ordinator Becky explains more…
In addition to providing information about our own working practices and the funeral industry in general, this year we’ve decided to expand our blog content in order to help us increase our awareness of cultures outside of our own. Death is, after all, a human issue which impacts us all, and in order to honour the lives of those we work with, it’s important to understand them! To begin the series, we’re looking at Chinese New Year, the celebrations for which start this week.
Chinese New Year is the festival celebrating the first day of the year in the traditional lunar calendar. Celebrations can last for up to a month, but the official observation lasts 15 days, beginning on the evening preceding the first day of the New Year. As the calendar is lunar, the dates per the Gregorian calendar vary, with the first day of the year falling anywhere between 21st January and 20th February. In 2021, the first day of the New Year is 12th February – the first day during this period when a new moon appears.
The period surrounding the New Year date is known as the Spring Festival, marking the end of winter and the beginning of spring, and is one of the most important occasions in the Chinese calendar. Accordingly there are many traditions observed, though these do vary across regions. Much like festivals in other cultures, it is a chance for families to gather and share experiences, particularly for an annual reunion dinner.
Contrary to popular belief, the Chinese New Year celebrations have little to do with astrology, though it does also mark a change in this sense too. Whilst the Western zodiac operates on a monthly cycle, the Chinese format is linked to the orbital period of the planet Jupiter – at 11.85 years, this also creates a 12-part cycle. In addition to representing years rather than months, the symbols of the Chinese zodiac – all animals – aren’t linked to constellations, but rather to traditional elements.
However, the story of the New Year festival is actually about a mythical beast known as the Nian, which ate villagers – particularly children – overnight during the Spring Festival. The villagers hid overnight in fear, with the exception of one elderly man who took it upon himself to stay up and get revenge on the beast. His fellow villagers thought he was mad, and the man hung red papers and set off firecrackers during the night. When the villagers returned in the morning, they found the man safe and well and that no destruction had occurred. From this, they understood that the Nian was afraid of the colour red and loud noises, and so the tradition of wearing red clothing, hanging lanterns and papers and setting off firecrackers began.
During the days prior to the New Year, Chinese families thoroughly clean their homes: this is to remove any bad luck from the outgoing year, and make space for good luck associated with the new one. Cleaning products and tools are then stored away, so that they cannot be used on the first day of the year. The annual reunion dinner is comprised of symbolic dishes which represent wealth and prosperity, though the exact nature of these varies regionally. Modern practice is to continue the party at home, much as the Gregorian New Year is celebrated with a countdown, though traditionally families would have visited a local temple and burned the first incense of the year during prayer.
The festival then continues for several days, all of which are a public holiday in China. The first day of the year is for welcoming deities, and is also marked by honouring elder’s and the most senior members of extended families and communities. This is also the time at which older, married couples provide gifts of money in red envelopes to younger members of the family, again symbolising luck and prosperity.
Rituals vary regionally during the first week, but for many people there are a series of days upon which spirits are welcomed or banished, in order to make space for desirable events throughout the year ahead. On the eighth day, another family dinner is held, to celebrate the eve of the birth of the Jade Emperor, the ruler of heaven. Most people will return to work on this day, and some companies choose to recognise their employees as a form of family by hosting a lunch, and thanking them for the work they have done throughout the year. Celebrations often end on the fifteenth day following the New Year date, with this date also representing an occasion similar to Valentine’s Day in some regions.
Due to reunion dinners taking place, and provincial spread of families for both business and study, the period of Chinese New Year is referred to as ‘chunyun’ and represents the world’s largest annual migration. It has a significant impact on transportation systems, with demand being at an absolute peak during the typical outward bound dates just prior to the New Year, and return dates towards the end of this period.
Celebrations of Chinese New Year are marked around the world among groups of people who have migrated from China to other areas. Sydney claims to host the largest Chinese New Year celebration outside of Asia, with outdoor markets, street performances and dragon boat races marking the occasion, although due to COVID-19 being an ongoing issue, this won’t be taking place during 2021. In the USA, there are also several celebrations, with the largest and longest-established taking place in San Francisco. A celebration has taken place there annually since the 1860s, with the population having rapidly expanded from 1849 due to the gold rush. It was initially begun in order to share the Chinese population’s traditions with other locals, with the aim to decrease hostility towards them, and a parade has taken place regularly since the 1950s.
Here in the UK, London’s Chinatown is the home of further celebrations, incorporating feasts, fireworks and performances which attract between 300,000 and 500,000 people annually. Sadly, for many regions of the world still working to contain the coronavirus, celebrations of this size, or even smaller, won’t be possible this year. Hopefully, things will be different for 2022.
In 2021, the New Year marks the welcoming of the Year of the Ox, the second animal to complete the Jade Emperor’s famous ‘Great Race’, whereby the folk story tells of how the Emperor challenged the animals to a race across the river, then being assigned their order based on their placing in the race.
Those born in the Year of the Ox are said to be honest and earnest, not looking to be the centre of attention. They are also said to be logical thinkers who make good leaders.
Due to the lunar nature of the Chinese calendar, the New Year will run from 12th February 2021 to 31st January 2022, welcoming the next year on 1st February 2022. We wish all of those celebrating a Happy New Year!
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