It all started with a terrible monster… In ancient China, there was a terrible monster called Nian 年兽 (pronounced nián shòu) that ate people, crops, and livestock on the last day of every year. People who tried to fight the monster didn’t succeed. The only way people could survive was to leave the village and hide in the mountains.
It is said that one New Year’s eve long, long ago, when most people had already left the village, an old lady whose husband was too ill to move decided to stay. As she was preparing food for her husband, a beggar knocked on the door and asked for food.
The old lady felt sorry for him, so she invited him in and gave him some of the food she had just prepared. After eating, the beggar asked:
“Why is there no one else in the village?”
The old lady told him about Nian.
“Don’t worry!” he said. “I can help you expel the monster.”
He borrowed red paper and red cloth from her. He pasted the paper on the door, put the red cloth on himself, and sat outside the front door, waiting for the monster. When Nian appeared, the hungry, grumpy monster approached the house, preparing to swallow the beggar.
The beggar started to burn the bamboo cane in his hand… The cracking sound frightened Nian, and made it so dizzy and scared that it fell against the door. When Nian opened its eyes, it saw the bright red paper pasted on it and his eyes hurt like crazy.
At that moment, the old lady was chopping dumpling meat loudly in the kitchen. The sound gave Nian a serious headache. Nian couldn’t stand it anymore, and finally ran away. Suddenly, the beggar disappeared, and the surprised old lady realized he was actually a god.
When the villagers returned, they were shocked to see the old lady and her husband still alive. After she told them about her miraculous experience, they adopted the same methods to protect themselves from Nian every Chinese New Year’s Eve, and Nian has never returned.
That is why during the Chinese New Year Festival, you find doors decorated with Chinese couplets on red paper, people wearing red clothing, firecrackers blasting, and families making dumplings to celebrate Chinese New Year.
The Legend of the Lanterns, 燈籠 (deng lóng)
A long, long time ago… a hunter accidentally killed a god’s favorite pet bird. The god was so angry that he asked his soldiers to set fire to the village on the fifth day of the first lunar month. One of the god’s kindly daughters couldn’t bear to see the tragedy happen, and risked her life to warn the people of the village.
The people panicked, but a village elder came up with a brilliant idea… They hung up lanterns, lit firecrackers, and set off fireworks to make the god think that the village was burning down. And it worked!
Since then, this tradition occurs every fifth day of the first lunar month to ward off disaster. The 15th day of the New Year is the Lantern Festival. It is the last day of the Festival celebrations.
The power of red packets
A red packet, also called a red envelope, is a traditional Chinese monetary gift given in the Chinese New Year. It’s called 紅包 (hóng bāo) in Mandarin Chinese, and 利是 in Cantonese. Chinese people usually seal some money inside the red packets, and then give them to children.
壓歲錢 (yā suì qián) literally means “the money to ward off Sui.” Sui is believed to be an evil being that attacks children on New Year’s Eve. It is said that whoever is touched by Sui will lose their intelligence. One day, a couple placed a red envelope with eight coins under their child’s pillow, and it kept Sui away.
They later realized that the eight coins were the avatars of eight gods. Since then, many people place red packets with coins inside under their children’s pillows to protect them. When giving red packets, it should be done after New Year’s Eve, and the customary way is to use both hands and look at the receiver as you give it to him or her.