除夕(chú xī) – the Chinese New Year’s Eve – falls upon the last day of the Chinese lunar calendar, and is the most important day for family reunions and celebrations. No matter where they are, people hop on buses and trains to rush home for a warm dinner of delicacies or simply to be with family.
But how did this day come about? When people shout out “过年啦 (guò nián la, Nian is finished)” in excitement, have you ever wondered what that means? Here is the story of the monster – Xi, or some may know as Nian – that provides the origin of this crucial Chinese festival.
Nian was a fierce monster that had sharp horns on its head and lived deep down in the sea. On the eve of the New Year, Nian would come up and scare off the villagers, who, therefore would hide in the mountains every New Year's Eve. One year, an old man with a long beard came to town, and refused to hide! "Don't worry, I will help you get rid of the monster." The good-hearted grandmother who hosted him could not convince him of the danger and left by herself, worried.
At midnight, Nian came to the village. Waving its horns, it searched houses for things to eat. Finally, it came to the grandmother's house; and behold, there was red paper on the door and brightly lit rooms everywhere! Seeing this made Nian tremble all over; and when it heard the sound of the crashing thunder, Nian started to step backwards in fear! Just then, the door opened; the old man walked out, dressed entirely in red; and Nian fled at the sight of him! Seeing the monster run away, the villagers were showered with joy and asked curiously: “what magic did you use to drive Nian away?" “I didn't use any magic,” the old man smiled, “it’s the red paper, light and thunder that Nian is afraid of!”
[caption id="attachment_1872" align="aligncenter" width="533"] Firecrackers to scare away the Nian monster. Photo courtesy of screaming monkey.[/caption]
Now you may have guessed 除夕 literally means “to drive away the Monster.” Since then, on New Year’s Eve, people put up red couplets on the door, red clothes on themselves, set off firecrackers and keep the house lit all night long. This custom has spread over the country and become the grandest festival in China.
People around China celebrate the New Year’s Eve with various traditions and food. For instance, northern China prefers dumplings while southern prefers a sweet dish called “汤圆 (tāng yuán).” However, north of south, fish is a must, for it pronounces the same as 余(yú), meaning extra and abundance. It’s not hard to imagine that “年年有余(鱼)” (nián nián yǒu yú, to have extra left every year) has then become one of Chinese favorite idioms.
After dinner, people stay up and wait for the New Year to come, playing poker, watching new-year shows and programs, or simply chatting to catch up. Then, when the clock strikes 12, the upbeat sound of firecrackers fills all the towns and cities – the New Year has come again with blessings and happiness.
How do you celebrate Chinese New Year?