[Gosh, I better finish this last piece or else the new year will be old!]
On New Year’s Day, the only thing you want to do is to sleep in. You ate too much, drank too much, slept too late. After all, the firecrackers at midnight took a while to die down.
But some neighbors will set off another round of firecrackers as early as 6 a.m. These are called kai men pao, open door cannon, a ritual symbolizing that the new year opens with a big bang. Their bangs wake up your kids. Your kids knock on your door, begging you to get up. The New Year’s Day is when they receive red envelopes.
The tradition is, this was especially true when three generations lived under one roof, that the kids first go kowtow to the grandparents. The grandparents give them red envelopes. Then, the kids greet the parents, and the parents also give red envelopes. The money inside is called ya sui qian, meaning “hold down age money”, symbolizing the older generations wish to keep the kids innocent and young.
This is a stay-home day. Different regions have their own rituals. In ours, we eat yuan xiao, balls made of glutenous rice flour in sweet liquid. They have different fillings, such as red bean paste, ground peanuts or sesame seeds, some like meat fillings, too. Yuan means “round” in Chinese. On New Year’s Day, eating yuan xiao symbolizes family unity. The sweet liquid base means the family will have a sweet life in the new year. We also eat gao, steamed rice flour cake, plain sweet or with walnuts, dates, and other dried fruits mixed in. Gao means “high” in Chinese. Having it symbolizes that everyone in the family is going upward. What we don’t do is work. The old saying goes like this: if you
do any kind of labor, you will have to do a lot of that all year long.
After this day, however, it is time to go out, you visit relatives. You take fruit baskets, ginseng and other goodies with you. These gifts need to be chosen thoughtfully. Never ever show up at someone’s house empty-handed. On these visits, you will always be
offered dian xin, Chinese snacks, like sweet soup, buns etc., and you will always be asked to stay for the next meal. Kids get more red envelopes from uncles and aunts. They run around with their cousins who get red envelopes from you.
It goes on like this for two weeks, you visit all relatives and important friends one by one. You go out dine with them or stay in each others’ homes for home-made meals.
Then comes the 15th day of the New Year which we Chinese view as the end of the celebration period. Many in the U.S. know of this day as the Lantern Festival. But the real name of this day is zheng yue shi wu, plainly, January’s 15th Day. Why is the 15th day special? Because this is the very first night in the new lunar year when the moon is full.
On this day, family eats yuan xiao again, the balls made of glutenous rice flour. Houses raised lanterns in the old days, now most city folks only put up paper lanterns decoratively. When I was young, we made bamboo stick frames and pasted rice paper on them to turn them into beautiful home-made lanterns, our grandparents also bought us fancier ones from lantern sellers. After dark, we lit the candles inside the lanterns and paraded through the neighborhoods. Now, few in cities still do that but there are community events which exhibit or feature lanterns. There is a town near Taipei that had great tian deng, sky lantern events. We missed it this year, because on the day we planned to go it was raining. Not a good idea to raise lit paper lanterns into the sky in the rain.
One more family gathering, many more fire crackers were set up that night. Then, people shou xin, retrieve their hearts, that have gone wild lately, and get back to work.
So it goes like this year after year for 5,000 years.