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Chinese New Year 101

Desiree Pakiam
Going Out – By Day
18 January 2012

Is it your first time to celebrate the season? What if you just feel the need to brush up on your history and traditions? Whatever the reason, we're sure this fun bit of background info will make the New Year a little more relevant and meaningful.

'Tis the season to be red
From decorations to clothes to money packets, everything has to be in red. Trace back the origins of the festival and you'll see: Legend says that when a village was once plagued by a terrifying dragon, the villagers drove it away by hanging red swaths of cloth and setting off firecrackers. How did they know the creature's weakness? They saw how scared it got when it heard a loud noise and saw a child dressed in red!

A new set of clothes and shoes for the children
Going back to the "child dressed in red and scared the dragon" story, parents buy their kids new clothes and shoes every New Year — preferably in red — to honour the tradition.

Lion dances
Hire lion dance troupes to perform at the entrance of your business, as the ritual is believed to frighten off evil spirits and summon good fortune. But when did this all begin, you might ask? Well, according again to legend, a monk had foreseen the many evils that would plague the land — so he asked the gods for help. When he was told that a lion could protect them, he combined all the magical creatures he could think of and formed one — because no such animal existed in China at the time.

Families consume them during Chinese New Year. Why? Because they resemble Chinese tael — the form of gold and silver that were traded in ancient times — which explains its association with wealth and prosperity. Family members prepare the dumplings together and insert a small coin into one of them. Whoever gets the dumpling with the hidden coin will be the "lucky" one in the family for the year.

The Chinese traditionally light firecrackers during Chinese New Year to get Guan Yu's attention. Who's Guan Yu? Born in the Han dynasty, he is considered the greatest general in Chinese history and is worshipped as the God of Wealth. So it goes that setting off firecrackers also serves to scare away evil spirits and bring good fortune and luck to the family. (Warning: Do check if firecrackers are permitted in your area; they're banned in some areas of Southeast Asia as they're fire hazards.)

Sharp objects
Along with not sweeping the house on the first day of the New Year, handling sharp objects like knives and scissors is just bad luck. In fact, touching them could signify that one's fortune will be "snipped off" for the rest of the year. This is why dishes for the New Year are usually prepared in advance — you can only reheat them that day.

Reunion dinner
The Chinese New Year reunion dinner is one of the most important rituals of the festival. The family has to get together for dinner on the last day of the year to reminisce and to put the past behind. What's more, getting together on the last day of the year also symbolises family togetherness.

Turning in late
Young people are encouraged to stay up as late as possible on the eve till morning of Chinese New Year, to ensure their parents' longevity and good fortune for the year. (That doesn't sound too hard to follow…)

So which of these traditions are your favourites? What are your plans this Chinese New Year? We'd love to know!

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