In the west you get New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. You get an overindulgent evening, and a a day of TV football, then back to the regular grind and who knows what fortune in the coming year. With the Chinese it’s completely different. You get two whole weeks of carefully orchestrated festivities designed to unite and strengthen the family and ensure a prosperous and successful coming year. This year will be the 4713th year in the Chinese calendar. According to the Chinese the Yellow King became the first king of China in 2697 BCE and the years are counted from that date. Since the traditional Chinese calendar is a lunar one, the New Year this year started on the new moon of February 8th. There is an additional aspect to Chinese years because the Chinese calendar cycle also uses the cycle of 10 stems and 12 branches to identify the years. Most westerners are familiar with the animals assigned to the 12 branches. To identify this year we calculate (60 * 78) + 33 = 4713 and Red Fire Monkey is the 33rd Stem-Branch in the cycle, so this is the year of the Red Fire Monkey.
There are a lot of customs associated with the days of a traditional Chinese New Year. Most people are familiar with the use of firecrackers and many have seen the public lion dances. We are far from any Chinese community now and the cats do not like firecrackers, so we focus on the aspects of New Year that have to do with cleaning and food for bringing in good luck and prosperity. Even cats want good luck, health and prosperity. As with many other traditions and holidays the Chinese give the house a very thorough cleaning just before the two week New Year celebrations begin. Out with the dirt goes that bad luck and your house is open and welcome for new good luck to come in. Even if you scoff at “superstition”, most people like a clean house and I think there is a kind of positive subconscious programming in this kind of ritual. So I do a thorough cleaning, too.
This year I learned about the Laba Day. It comes well before the New Year festivities but for many serves as the first day of the season. The Laba Festival was not a fixed day until the Southern and Northern dynasties, when it was linked with the day of the Buddha’s enlightenment and the date influenced by Buddhism and got a fixed date on the eighth day of twelfth month. Many customs of the Laba Festival are related to Buddhism. The main focus of the day is making, eating and sharing the Laba rice porridge, a custom that has been around since the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279).
The congee is made with a mix of grains, beans. nuts, tofu and meat with additions of things like melon seeds, lotus seeds, pine nuts, sugar, and other preserved fruits added to give more flavors. For me to make this would have meant one of those three hour drives to the good Asian markets to shop for ingredients but next year I will add this to my calendar, if only to have a chance to make and eat this great dish. Also, as I am a garlic lover, there is another reason to add the date to my calendar. This is also the time of making the special Laba garlic preparation. The garlic is peeled and the cloves are separated and put into jars of rice vinegar with a little sugar and kept in a cool dark place. Traditionally the garlic will be ready in twenty days on the day of the Lantern Festival. To make the best Laba garlic, you should use the purple tinged garlic bulbs and a white rice vinegar which turns the garlic a beautiful green color.
On the 24th day of 12th Lunar Month is the day to wish the Stove God and his wife farewell as they depart to heaven to report to the Jade Emperor on the activities of the family. Since the trip to heaven is a long one this is done early in the morning so they can get a good start and arrive in heaven the same day. Sweet rice is offered and still others try to make sure good things are said to jade Emperor by smearing honey on the mouths of the Stove God and his wife on the paper image pasted above the stove. After this the paper is taken down and burned so they can rise on the smoke to heaven. I sent my Stove God off with a little honey on his lips this year. I want the Jade Emperor (and every other helpful entity) to look favorably on my house hunting efforts this year.
After the Stove God and his wife are gone, the big cleaning starts on the 25th day of 12th lunar month. Everything must be dusted and scrubbed, windows must be washed. You can get very elaborate checklists from the feng shui practitioners to make sure you don’t miss any chore. Since I clean for Imbolc, life is easier for Chinese new Year cleaning day but I believe cleaning is more important in winter anyway, with heating systems blowing dust and allergens, dry air being bad for the respiratory system and people not getting out as much. Then there are a couple of days for making all the rice cakes like Nian Gao but today many people but ready made ones and use the days to rest before the really big celebration.
The New Year’s Eve comes on the 39th or 28th day of the 12th lunar month depending on the calendar. Just as in the west, there is a big celebration and everyone stays up until midnight. I don’t put much effort into this part. I am far from family, or other people celebrating, and I don’t even have a television to watch. But we always have a big dinner with the special foods, I even make a cat banquet for the cats, they are my family too. They like pork and chicken, very popular Chinese meats. The next day is a holiday much like in the west, people visit and exchange New Year greetings with friends and neighbors and the young people who have received red envelope money, started the custom of going shopping for holiday bargains, much like American Black Friday after Thanksgiving.
In China and places with large Chinese populations this is the official holiday. For me and my cats it is about having a clean house and lots of food on hand, certainly not a bad start to the year. I enjoy the ritual and the customs, they give a structure to my life I don’t get from western holidays. I miss having good shopping and restaurants nearby. I am just going to have to redouble my efforts to move to a better place. I hope in the Year of the Red Fire Monkey will be an auspicious one for that, that I will be energetic and nimble and quick to find and act on opportunity, like Monkey.