Chinese New Year’s Eve is the last day of the lunar calendar when the Chinese get ready to welcome the first day of the new lunar year. Following is a brief history of how the Chinese prepare for the coming year.
Ancient Chinese people used to beat drums on the eve of each Chinese New Year to drive away the monster of the old year. In ancient times, it was believed there was a ferocious beast known as “Year” that would eat anything, and every day it would change its taste.
Finally, on the last day of the year, it would eat human beings. The drums were used to frighten it away. Later, it was discovered that the beast was also afraid of firecrackers, so people would ignite bamboo with explosive powder inside to expel “Year,” which later developed into the tradition of lighting fireworks on Chinese New Year’s Eve.
Later, people would hang peach wood charms on their doors and worship Buddhas and gods. It was said there is a mountain in Hell where a big peach tree that covers 3,000 miles grows, and inside the tree, there lives a golden rooster.
This tree is located near the entrance of Hell, and there are two gods who guard the entrance – one is named Shentu and the other is Yulei. If Shentu and Yulei see a ghost doing some wicked thing, they will bind it with ropes and feed it to a tiger.
All the ghosts in Hell are afraid of Shentu and Yulei. Thus, people carved their images or their names on peach wood, and put those peach wood charms over their doors to expel the evil.
The most famous doorkeepers are Shentu and Yulei; however, after the Tang Dynasty, two generals, Qin Shubao and Wei Chigong, were also added as doorkeepers. The legend is that Li Shimin, the emperor of the Tang Dynasty, dreamed of ghosts crying outside his room night after night, so he ordered the two generals to stand at his door. After that, he was not disturbed by the ghosts.
Families might also set up a “Heaven and Earth table” to worship Buddhas and gods. The Heaven and Earth table is a table that is temporarily set up in the middle of the living room or in the backyard.
It is said that Zao Jun, the kitchen god, would return to the heavens to report the deeds of the family near the end of the lunar year. On Chinese New Year’s Eve, the eldest member of the family would hold the “meeting gods” ceremony in front of the Heaven and Earth table.
After bowing to the gods, the family members would stand quietly until all the incense was burned out, then bow again. Afterwards, fireworks would be lit to greet the gods.
These days, people still keep the tradition of staying up late for the Chinese New Year, lighting fireworks, and the whole household eats together and entertains each other. After eating dinner on Chinese New Year’s Eve, the older generation gives the younger generation “New Year’s money,” or “red envelopes.”
Next, everyone wraps dumplings or makes New Year cakes together. Then the whole family eats dumplings or Chinese rice cakes until the early morning of the first day of the lunar calendar. During the last minutes of Chinese New Year’s Eve, people might also go outside to listen to the sound of bells ringing at the temple.
Listening to the bells was a way to say farewell to the old year and welcome the new one.