Being one of the countries with the highest overseas Chinese communities in Southeast Asia, the Philippines and Filipinos in general are always looking forward to Chinese New Year every year. Traditionally, the Chinese New Year, otherwise known as Spring Festival is celebrated at the turn of the lunisolar Chinese calendar which follows the movement of the moon and the seasons. For our Chinese brothers and sisters, the Chinese New Year signifies the end of winter and welcoming spring which is the season for growth and new beginnings.
Fully embracing the Chinese culture, we Filipinos have celebrated and respected traditions during the Chinese New Year. We love tikoy and receiving ang pao but do you know the story behind it? Here are some facts that many Filipinos don’t know about the CNY celebrations.
The myth behind the Chinese New Year
Loud music, the color red, and firecrackers are always the embodiment of every Chinese New Year. The reason behind it stems from the story about a creature called Nian.
At New Year’s day, Nian would terrorize the village, eat grain and livestock. In fear of the demon, the villagers boarded up their homes to protect themselves and their families. This continued on until an old man paid a visit to the village, wondering why its residents are afraid of the said creature.
Skeptical and afraid, the villagers still locked themselves in. That night, Nian did not come with the old man keeping it at bay. This went on for several nights until he had to leave, revealing himself to be a god whose presence is needed elsewhere.
“The beast is easily scared. It fears the color red, loud noises, and strange creatures”, said the old man. He instructed the villagers to hang red signs and decorations, play loud drums, and music. Since then, Nian was never seen again. Hence, the term Gou Nian referring to the New Year which roughly translates to “overcome nian” or “pass over nian”.
Behind the dragon dance
Among the many sights that you would see in Chinatown during CNY is the dragon dance. As a symbol wisdom, wealth, and power, the dragon dance is believed to bring good luck and prosperity, especially with the new year approaching. The dragon dance was initially performed to worship ancestors and praying for rain which dragons are thought to bring.
There’s a lot that goes on to the dragon dance before and after it is performed. First off, the body of the dragon is kept in a Dragon King Temple which can only be taken out at the day of the performance. In a ceremony called the “eye-pointing”, people connect the head and the tail of the dragon to its body. Leading the dragon is a person holding a rod with a ball at the top which can be moved top and bottom, left and right. After the performance, the head and tail are burnt and the body is returned to the temple where it will be kept for the next year.
Perhaps the most recognizable aspect of the Chinese New Year are the fireworks. These aren’t your typical watusi or roman candle, these are fireworks which is designed to create loud noises. From the Nian story, fireworks are used to keep the creature at bay and to ward off evil spirits.
Traditionally, Chinese fireworks are made from hollow bamboo stem which is filled up with gunpowder to create small explosions. This has later evolved to firecrackers which produces a popping sound when lit. Each firecracker is wrapped in red paper (because Nian) and is interconnected by a long fused string, enabling it to be hung.
For safety reasons, many countries from around the world (including the Philippines) has banned fireworks on Chinese New Year or any other celebration.
Tikoy is not the only dish you can eat and prepare for CNY
If you can name one dish that is eaten during CNY it would be tikoy. However, you would be glad to know that tikoy is not the only treat you can taste during the festivities. Like all celebrations, food plays a big part during the Chinese New Year. Apart from our favorite rice treat, traditional Chinese New Year dishes include steamed rice pudding, long noodles, and dumplings. Decorative food is also commonplace during Chinese New Year. Trays of oranges and tangerines, eight trays of candy and dried fruits, live plants and fresh flowers can be seen during CNY.
Ang Pao (Red Packets) are not just about money
Among the reasons why Filipinos love the Chinese New Year is the Ang Pao or red packets which are handed out during the festivities. In contrary to popular belief, Ang Pao’s are not exclusively for Chinese New Year, it is also given on other special occasions like birthdays and weddings. The amount of money in the packet may vary but it will always end with an even digit, in lieu with Chinese traditions that odd-numbered money gifts are often associated with funerals. In addition, the amount should not contain 4, 40, 444, or 400 because the word four is pronounced as death in many Chinese languages.
Behind the packet, there is also a legend about the Ang Pao which is no different from the Nian story. There are several legends revolving around the red packet. One tells a story about a demon terrorizing a village by touching children’s heads while they sleep. Once touched, a child can fall deathly ill and die. This continued on until a couple prayed to the gods for the safety of their new-born child. Answering their prayers, the gods sent eight fairies to protect their child during sleep. To trick the demon, the fairies disguised themselves as coins which are then placed under the child’s pillow. As the night approaches and the demon at large, it appoached the child to touch his head when the coins shined so bright that it scared the it away. After hearing the story, villagers began spreading the news and gave out red envelopes with eight coins to ward off bad spirits. Ang Pao were initially given to children to protect them from demons but as time progresses, it can be given to anyone.
The significance of Mandarin oranges
You might notice the boom in mandarin oranges, tangerines, and kiat-kiats in your local Chinatown this coming Chinese New Year. This is because oranges, especially Mandarin oranges play a significant role in traditional Chinese New Year celebrations. These fruits are given out to visitors of the household and neighbors as a sign of good luck for the new year. The reason behind it lies within the word “orange”. In Chinese, the word “tangerine” sounds like the word “luck” while “orange” sounds like wealth. Another reason why it is a choice of fruit is its color which is synonymous to gold and riches. Aside from its fruits, miniature orange trees are placed in main doorways of offices, homes, and shops to usher in good luck.
CNY is celebrated for 15 days
It may come quite a shock but CNY is celebrated not in a day, two days, or five days but fifteen days. After the fireworks and dragon dance, the first day is celebrated by abstaining from meat which is thought to bring good luck. Instead of lechon many eat a vegetarian dish called jai which comprises of lotus seed (signifying many children), dried bean curd (wealth and happiness), and bamboo shoots. Tofu or any white ingredients are avoided because it represents death and misfortune.
The second day since the New Year is celebrated by paying tribute to ancestors and to the gods. It is also believed that all dog’s birthday on the second day of the New Year. Day three and day four is about visiting family, especially your parent-in-laws. On the fifth day, it is believed that the god of wealth will visit the household and every family member must be present for a warm welcome. It is also believed that visiting relatives on the fifth day bring bad luck. From the sixth to the tenth day, prayers are offered on temples for health, wealth, and prosperity. On the tenth to the thirteenth day, the family receives dinner invitations where they share rice congee and mustard greens. The fourteenth day is spent preparing for the lantern festival that’s going to take place on the fifteenth day.
There’s more to Chinese New Year than saying Gong Xi Fa Cai, wearing red, or eating tikoy. It is a summary of thousands of years of traditions and celebrations for many of our Chinese brothers and sisters. The best thing about CNY is that it is an inclusive holiday which can be celebrated by anyone regardless of race and ethnicity.
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