I have lived outside China for over 20 years. After moving overseas, for more than 10 years I still chose to return to China to celebrate Chinese New Year. I haven’t returned to China for a few years now, however. Since becoming a citizen in Northern Europe (and having a foreign passport rather than a Chinese passport), it is no longer so easy or convenient to travel back to China.
The reason for my annual return to China in the past, apart from my sentimental attachment to the motherland, was because New Year celebrations in China, south of the Yangtze River, are more festive and genuine. Everyone wears new clothes on the first day of the New Year, gives red packets filled with money to each other, and the sound of firecrackers being set off can be heard all around — a sense of happiness and excitement fills the air.
As the lunar year turns to the last month, the atmosphere of the New Year gathers momentum. Sons and daughters of every household return. All are busy brewing rice wine, preparing rice candies and cakes, and marinating poultry for the festival. Fathers as usual buy oversize fish, along with chicken and meat, to prepare special meals. Mothers select fabrics for tailors to make new clothes. All look forward to and get ready for the annual big days to come during Chinese New Year.
To bid farewell to the Kitchen God is the prelude to Chinese New Year
The festive atmosphere starts in the 12th month and gets stronger as the New Year draws nearer. As a child, I associated the start of the festival with dusting, that is, the year-end thorough cleaning of the house.
Generally, people clean their house on odd numbered days till New Year’s Eve to make sure the inside and outside of the house are clean and spotless. I was the eldest child at home, so, of course, I was expected to help clean the house. As soon as dusting begins, unlucky words cannot be spoken; otherwise, bad luck will come in the New Year.
To bid farewell to the Kitchen God is the prelude to the New Year. People respectfully call the Kitchen God “Lord of the Stove.” Southern people set Kitchen God tablets in the kitchen for worship and protection.
Annually, from the 23rd to the 25th in the 12th month, people offer sacrifices to the Kitchen God and paste his picture in the center of the stove shrine with a couplet on both sides that reads “To Report Good Deeds to Heaven” and “To Safeguard Households on Earth.” At dusk, the family gathers in the kitchen, lighting up candles, placing sweet dumplings on the stove, burning incense, bowing, and thanking the Kitchen God for a safe past year prior to his report to Heaven.
At night, we thank Heaven and our ancestors for the good year that just passed. Family members cleanse their faces and hands, gather in the hall where ancestral portraits hang, light up candles, burn incense, kneel and bow three times respectively to Heaven and Earth to bless the safety of the family, to the Kitchen God for the safekeeping of the household, and to the ancestors for the family’s well-being. To complement the ritual, each family must set off firecrackers to salute the presence of God.
The three yearly dishes in Southern Yangtze cuisine
Needless to say, the meal on New Year’s Eve is a hearty feast. Ten is the perfect number. There must be 10 dishes on the table along with home-brewed wine. Ten sets of bowls and chopsticks are set on the table. The better-off families also have 10 braziers under the table. As we didn’t have any, we as children were exceedingly envious of those who did.
Before dinner starts, adults first need to perform the worship ritual at the front gate. They burn incense and paper to Heaven and Earth, the Kitchen God, and the ancestral home before eating. It is only after doing this that the family gathers around the table to start eating.
As dinner begins, the first bite has to be vegetables, which signify cleanliness and purity throughout the year. All dishes have their symbolic meanings: vermicelli for prosperity and longevity, glutinous rice cake for a better year, fish for affluence, sweet cakes for a sweet and happy life. Most people still retain the custom of leaving some leftovers in all the bowls and dishes to spare for the next year, symbolizing affluence.
Three Southern Yangtze River specialty dishes are indispensable on our table – “eight treasures,” steamed dumplings, and leavened bread. The “eight treasures” are also known as “the wishful dish,” which denotes luck and riches. It consists of black fungus, bean sprouts, radish, fried tofu, spiced dry tofu, mushrooms, winter pickles, and dry bamboo shoots. Colorful and nutritious, the dish is especially good for the digestive system.
The method of making steamed dumplings is also very special. We put minced meat, squashed tofu, radish, and sweet potato flour together, mix well, and knead into a dough that is then cut into fist-size pieces and served after steaming. The look of the black gnocchi is not that appealing, but when you bite into it, you cannot stop. It is soft and delicious when hot. It was also called “meatball” in those harsh days back then. For me, it is still one of my favorite foods today.
There are also hot steamed buns. Nicely fermented, they are sweet, soft, and extremely delicious. A red mark is stamped on them for the celebration of a booming New Year.
Staying up to embrace the New Year
Everyone stays up after dinner. “To stay up” means to wait for dawn to come, which is the beginning of a brand new year. All the lights in the house are lit up the whole time, which implies a bright year ahead.
As soon as midnight passes, firecrackers are set off everywhere. Fireworks illuminate the dark sky one after another. Another set of rituals is then performed to welcome the Kitchen God back. Newly-made dishes are set on the table. Burning candles, incense, and paper, everyone kneels and gives thanks for the passing of an old year, while praying for the blessings for the entire family in the New Year.
From the first day to the 15th of the first month
On the first day of the New Year, I usually woke up to the sounds of firecrackers. After taking out the “year-end good luck money” from under my pillow, I then wore new clothes and followed my parents to pay respect to the ancestors, which was the main chore of the day. We went to the cemetery to worship our ancestors with candles, joss sticks, paper, and firecrackers. On our way home, we needed to pick pine and cypress branches to take home to stay “evergreen.”
The first day is the happiest day for children. Not wanting to cause bad luck, parents do not scold their children on that day. It is also taboo to quarrel, to kill, or to collect debts. The first day is known as the broom’s birthday, so sweeping the floor is not allowed; otherwise, it will cause loss of money and attract the “sweeping star” for more bad luck to come. There should be no cooking on the day either, only eating the remaining food from the past day. I liked it as there was no need for me to help out.
The Lantern Festival, also known as the Yuanxiao Festival or Shangyuan Festival, is on the 15th of the month. On this day, each clan and household puts the ancestral portraits away after finishing worshipping their ancestors. After dinner, it is a custom to have sweet glutinous rice balls. Then, all go out together to watch the dragon lantern.
The New Year celebration spans over half a month. It is only till the Lantern Festival that the New Year festival in Southern Yangtze comes to an end. While things return to normal as the days continue, fond memories of what has just passed linger on. Children have to wait for another year to come for all that fun again.