Asian New Year Traditions
The ending of one year and the beginning of the next is a grand occasion in any country or culture but in China festivities are taken to an all-time high, with preparations beginning days in advance and the celebration lasting from New Year’s Eve through to the Lantern Festival on the 15th day of the New Year’s first month. Things kick off with a ritual meal of Laba porridge, eaten on the 8th day of the lunar month before New Year – then, in the days running up to New Year, Chinese give their home a thorough cleaning from top to bottom as a way of ridding themselves of any residual bad luck from the ‘old year’ and making way for good luck for the year to come. Once their homes have been cleaned they are decorated using red paint, paper cut-outs and lanterns. New clothes and shoes are purchased and anyone needing a hair-cut makes sure to get it done before New Year.
On New Year’s Eve there is the big Reunion dinner, known as Nian Ye Fan; fish is commonly served at this special meal, which can be compared to Christmas dinner in the West. In the north dumplings are made and eaten (symbolizing wealth) while in the south people prepare a glutinous cake, cut it into slices and distribute it to family and friends during the first few days of the New Year.
After the meal many families go to their local temple to pray throughout the night, though many families these days are also opting to stay at home and have big parties with fireworks and a New Year countdown; similar to what happens in the West.Various colourful celebrations and rituals continue over the next fifteen days.
Vietnamese New Year is romantically known as ‘Feast of the First Morning of the First Day’ and is a celebration of the arrival of spring based on the lunisolar calendar used by the Chinese, so the events happen on the same day. Also as with Chinese New Year, Vietnamese people give their houses a thorough cleaning beforehand and there are various cultural rituals bound up with the festival, such as the preparation of special holiday foods and decorating of the home using flowers such as chrysanthemums and orchids.
On New Year’s Day Vietnamese children are given money in special red packets and people go and visit friends and family, but they are careful to arrange their visit first as the first person to cross someone’s threshold on New Year supposedly determines that family’s fortune for the whole of the coming year. Public performances, such as thrilling dragon dances, are held on this day and there will be a parade with more dancing and people making as much noise as possible in the streets to chase away bad spirits; then, when the parade is over, family and friends will gather for a delicious New Year’s feast.
Thailand’s New Year is known as Song Kran and it is celebrated from April 13-15. Anyone who has visited the country during this festival knows it can get very wet, as dousing people with water is viewed as a symbolic means of washing away their bad luck for the New Year to come. Often streets become filled with revellers engaged in one big water fight; tourists can feel free to join in, as they are as likely to be splashed with water as the locals. During Song Kran, Thai people also engage in more solemn rituals, such as visiting their local temple to give alms to the monks and giving their homes a special spring-cleaning, including carefully cleaning their Buddha images to ensure good luck for the year ahead.
Before 1873 Japanese New Year was celebrated on the same date as the Chinese New Year, but from that year onward Japan adopted the Gregorian calendar and began celebrating it on January 1st as Western countries do. Japanese send special New Year’s cards to their friends and family, timing it so the post arrives by January 1st, and various special foods are cooked and eaten during this period, such as sweetened black soybeans, fish cakes, boiled seaweed and mashed sweet potato with rice cake. On the 7th day of January a special seven-herb rice soup is prepared to cleanse and ease over-exerted stomachs.
When the clock strikes midnight on December 31st, bells ring out across Japan, tolling a traditional 108 times – symbolizing Buddhism’s 108 human sins and freeing the populace of their 108 worldly desires. On New Year’s Day children are given gifts of money and traditional New Year’s games are played. Performances of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony are also traditionally held during this period; the symphony was introduced by German prisoners during the First World War and Japanese orchestras have been performing it since 1925.
Filipinos have a number of fascinating cultural rituals and beliefs centred around the New Year period. For example it is believed that if you carry money in your pockets during the transition from the old year to the new, you will be prosperous in the year ahead. You should also open all the doors and windows in your house and turn on all the lights, to ensure that good fortune will be welcomed to your house in the New Year. Meanwhile, at the stroke of midnight, people across the country will let off fireworks, blow car horns, clang pots and pans and ring church bells, in the belief that making as much noise as possible will ward off bad spirits and ensure a bountiful New Year ahead. Then, at around a quarter past twelve, all the family will sit down to a lavish feast know as Media Noche; as much food as possible is placed on the table, to ensure you will always have enough to eat in the New Year. Twelve round fruits should also be on the table, symbolizing wealth and abundance for the coming year.