The people of China and other Asian cultures celebrate the new year not only during the night of December 31st to January 1st, but during the night of the last day of the Chinese lunar calendar. Usually that is around the end of January or the beginning of February in the Gregorian calendar. This year, China welcomed the new year—the year of the snake—with the traditional 10 days of spring festival, starting on Sunday, February 10th. It was wonderful watching all the wonderful fireworks that night and and the following 10 nights). We sat together as a family (my Chinese wife, my Chinese parents, and some cousins who live nearby), ate Jiaozi, talked and watch one of the spring-festival shows on television.
Did you know that all those fireworks and lights have a serious history deeply based in Chinese culture? Some people nowadays might say “we celebrate the new New Year,” but there is an even deeper meaning than that!. An ancient Chinese legend tells the following story:
Once upon a time, people across China were afraid of the night when the old year ended. That’s the night when there would always be a monster visiting the villages, spreading fear and destruction.
The name of this monster was Xī (夕), which stands for New Year’s Eve in this story. The people would abandon their villages and flee into the mountains, and they would not return before the new year started.
One day a brave boy traveled the world and came to a village at just this time, and he wondered about the nervousness of those people. An old man told him the story of Xī and advised him to flee to the mountains, too. But this brave boy had an idea. If the monster came out at night, when everything is dark and silent, he would know how to fight it.
The brave little boy stayed in the village when the night spread her dark cloak over the landscape and waited for the monster Xī to come. It was about midnight when Xī finally entered the village and came up to invade the houses and scare those people who might have stayed. But the first door Xī approached was that of the house the boy had stayed in. Xī found all windows lit up and lanterns lightening the dark. As the monster came closer, loud and heavy fireworks sounded. That made the sky glow in multiple colors. The monster was terribly frightened and was easily defeated by the little boy in a fight to leave the village and never come back again.
The name of this little boy was Nian, and symbolizes that the new year can always overcome the frightening dangers of the old year. I researched a little and could not find the story the way it was told to me. But I found a variation where the monster was called Nian and the villagers themselves found out that the color red and loud fireworks would scare it away.
No matter which story is the real one, we Chinese always celebrate the night of the lunar new year by staying awake at night, having light glowing everywhere so we can see no darkness, and setting off fireworks to scare away the old bad monsters of the past and make them never come back again.
I hope you liked my little narration of this ancient Chinese story that reminds us why the new year is celebrated with lots of fireworks. Next time I might tell you a little about the Chinese zodiacs and what the year of the snake means to Chinese people (believe it or not, even modern Chinese still pay attention to that).
I will be happy to hear about your new-year celebration customs, if you’ll comment below!
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