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It’s that time of the year again – time for the most important Chinese holiday of them all – the Spring Festival (春节 – chūn jié). Also known around the world as Chinese New Year (农历新年 – nóng lì xīn nián), this holiday begins on the first day of the first month (正月 – zhēng yuè) of the lunar calendar, and ends on the 15th day with the Lantern Festival (元宵节 – yuán xiāo jié). While China has many festivals, this one is by far the most important and it is also the longest. Students enjoy a lengthy vacation, while all working adults will get seven days off. During the Spring Festival, everyone in China heads home, representing the biggest mass migration of people on Earth every year. This is known in Chinese as Spring Festival travel season (春运 – chūn yùn). There are many traditions and customs associated with this holiday, but before we get to those, let’s examine some of the history of this great festival.
In Chinese mythology, this holiday stems from the story (故事 – gù shi) of a beast called Nian (年兽 – nián shòu), who lived under the mountains or the sea. Once a year, the beast will come out of hiding to attack and even people. Worst of all, it was especially fond of children. As the story goes, it attacked a village one year, ravaging crops and eating people. From then on, the villagers would flee the village every year in order to avoid the devastation. However, one year an old man came to the village and asked a local grandma if he could stay in her home. She obliged, although she and the others thought the man would surely die. Once again, all of the villagers ran away, while the old man stayed behind.
That night, Nian showed up just like always. However, this year things were different, as it noticed red (红色 -hóng sè) paper on the gate. Then it heared the crackeling of firecrackers (烟花 – yān huā), which terrified the monster. In the middle of the home stood the old man, dressed in red from head to toe. The abundance of red and the loud sounds of the firecrackers were too much for Nian to bear, and he fled in fear. The next day, the villagers returned, surprised to see the old man had survived. From that year on, they decided to wear red robes and light firecrackers in order to scare away the beast. Luckily, their plan worked, and the evil Nian was scared away for good. It never bothered that village again, and while it is still believed to exist, it is said that the Nian is scattered amongst the mountains and will never appear in front of humans again. From this story come many of the Spring Festival traditions, such as decorating homes with all things red, lighting firecrackers, and performing a lion dance.
Here is an interesting video from Chinese TV telling the story of the Nian monster.
We’ll examine some of the customs and traditions associated with this holiday more closely in the next post or two.