The Origin of Lunar New Year and the Legend of Nian
Millions of people across China, Korea, Vietnam, Japan and other countries around the world are today celebrating the Lunar New Year and welcoming in the Year of the Rooster as part of an ancient custom that dates back at least 3,400 years.
The date of Chinese New Year, which is also called Spring Festival, changes every year as it is based on the lunar calendar. While the western Gregorian calendar is based on the earth’s orbit around the sun, China and most Asian countries use the lunar calendar that is based on the moon’s orbit around the earth. Chinese New Year always falls on the second new moon after the winter solstice.
While both Buddhism and Daoism have unique customs during the New Year, Chinese New Year is far older than both religions. Like many agrarian societies, Chinese New Year is rooted in the celebration of Spring. The New Year was likely the start of preparations for a new growing season. The whole purpose, in history, of creating a calendar or keeping track of time was to facilitate agriculture. It was important to know when to till the soil and sow the seeds.
However, the ancient Chinese calendar, on which the Chinese New Year is based, also functioned as a religious, dynastic and social guide. Oracle bones inscribed with astronomical records indicate that the celebrations existed at least as early as 14th century BC, when the Shang Dynasty was in power, although some believe it started from as early as Emperor Yao and Shun (2,300 BC).
The legendary Nian
According to tales and legends, the beginning of Chinese New Year started with the fight against a mythical beast called Nian, who had the body of a bull and the head of a lion. It was said to be a ferocious animal that lived in the mountains and hunted for a living. Towards the end of Winter when there was nothing to eat, Nian would come on the first day of New Year to the villages to eat livestock, crops, and even villagers, especially children. To protect themselves, the villagers would put food in front of their doors at the beginning of every year. It was believed that after the Nian ate the food they prepared, it wouldn’t attack any more people.
The villagers would live in terror over the Winter, but over time they learned that the ferocious Nian was afraid of three things: the colour red, fire, and noise. So when the New Year was about to come, the villagers would hang red lanterns and red spring scrolls on windows and doors. They also used firecrackers to frighten away the Nian. From then on, Nian never came to the village again. According to legend, the Nian was eventually captured by Hongjun Laozu, an ancient Taoist monk, and Nian became Hongjun Laozu's mount.
After Nian was captured, everyone had a big celebration and the ritual involved in banishing him was repeated the following year, and so the ritual was passed down from generation to generation and the custom of celebrating New Year with firecrackers, noise, and the colour red has persisted to this day.
Celebrating an ancient custom
Many modern-day celebrations trace back to the legendary story of Nian. Windows and doors are decorated with red colour paper-cuts with popular themes of "good fortune" or "happiness", "wealth", and "longevity." Red is the predominant colour used in the New Year celebrations. It is the emblem of joy, and also symbolizes virtue, truth and sincerity. On the Chinese opera stage, a painted red face usually denotes a sacred or loyal personage and sometimes a great emperor. On New Year’s Day people give gifts of money to friends, family, and colleagues in red paper envelopes.
It is a traditional practice to light fireworks, burn bamboo sticks and firecrackers and to make as much noise as possible to chase off the evil spirits as encapsulated by Nian.
Other customs and traditions include honouring one’s elders, which involves visiting the oldest and most senior members of the extended families. Often, the evening preceding Chinese New Year's Day is an occasion for Chinese families to gather for the annual reunion dinner. It is also traditional for every family to thoroughly cleanse the house, in order to sweep away any ill-fortune and to make way for good incoming luck. Some families may invite a lion dance troupe as a symbolic ritual to usher in the Chinese New Year as well as to evict bad spirits from the premises. In many cities, there are performances and dances which have been in existence for thousands of years, such as the royal heaven worshipping ceremony which was performed by emperors throughout history in Beijing to pray for the peace and prosperity of the nation.