Chinese New Year: a Passover?

A conversation yesterday made me realize some curious similarities between Chinese New Year and the ancient Hebrew Passover. In a sense, traditional Chinese New Year is a passover.

(I totally stole this photo from Shannon.)

To “celebrate the New Year” is literally, “pass (the) year” (过年). You can greet people with “Pass the year good!” (过年好!). In more traditional areas people still literally congratulate one another for “passing the year,” or perhaps, for being passed by the ‘Year.’ The annoying traditional songs looped in supermarkets for the last week – the Chinese equivalent of cheesy Christmas music overdose – feature the greeting, “Congratulations!” (恭喜!). But why do people start congratulating one another after midnight? What has passed?

“Pass the ‘year'” is a pun or play on the idea that the monster, called ‘Year,’ who comes out at New Year’s to eat people, has “passed” over. It’s as if to say, “Congratulations! The monster has passed you by!” This monster hates the colour red, and people adorn their doors with it across the top and down both sides, similar to what the ancient Hebrews did with lamb’s blood before the Exodus, so that God would “pass over” their homes during the night when God came to kill the firstborn of Egypt. These red banner sets are standard CNY decorations; even our door has them:


(We’re on the right, the neighbours are on the left.)

I suspect most people merely see these phrases and decorations as traditions vaguely meant to bring good luck/fortune and ward off bad. I don’t know what percentage of the population is even aware of the more traditional meanings (especially in the cities), perhaps like many Westerners don’t know why we have Christmas trees, hang red stockings, or where Santa Claus came from (many New Year traditions are dying out). But the roots of these particular Chinese traditions apparently involve adorning the lintel and door posts in red so that a mystical being will literally “pass” over the family without killing anyone… curious. I wonder which tradition is older: the Hebrew Exodus or the Chinese year monster. You can read more about the nián shòu (年兽), or “year monster,” here.

North vs. South: who has the best CNY celebrations and men?
Some more notable Chinese New Year-ness…
In this video, Sufei, the acutely unmarried Jewish girl in Beijing, talks with some migrant workers as they leave the city for their home provinces to “pass the year” with their families, who they only get see once a year. They’re part of the largest annual migration on earth.

She also interviews Beijingers and Hong Kongers about the different ways northerners and southerners celebrate Chinese New Year, and about which place has better men.

Includes a good clear dose of that Cantonese Chinese New Year greeting we used to mimic in elementary school, in case you’ve been wondering all your life what it was we were supposedly trying to say.

12 thoughts on “Chinese New Year: a Passover?”

  1. Joel this was an interesting post. However, in the Torah’s telling of this story it is G-d and not any any angel(messenger) who slaughters the first borns.

    This is the passover offering of YHWH. For that night “I will” go through the land of Egypt and strike down every first-born in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and “I will” deal out punishments to all of Egypt’s gods, “I YHWH”. (Exodus 12:12)

  2. oh my – that’s so embarrassing. I really should be remembering these things! Actually, I did know that… I have no idea why I was thinking angel when I wrote it. Thanks for the correction. I’ll correct the post right away.

    By the way, are you really in Japan?

  3. No, problem. I’ll be visiting this page from now on.
    I am a little surprised you don’t have a topic link on
    Canada, eh? Of course this is a China focused blog.

    I also have spies(just kidding) and…
    I ,just, happen to know that someone else from your country and from the university you went to in another country happens to be in Japan, too. You can check out her page here:
    https://accounts.google.com/ServiceLogin?service=blogger&hl=en&passive=86400&continue=http://www.blogger.com/blogin.g?blogspotURL%3Dhttp://www.areyoudaijobu.blogspot.com/%26zx%3Disv2bwmnnd3u&ltmpl=private

    A hint: I am not that person, but I met both her and you a decade ago in a desert land far, far away.

  4. “By the way, are you really in Japan?”
    Yes, I am.
    How, did you know that?

    愿 恩 惠 平 安 从 神 我 们 的 父
    和 主 耶 稣 基 督 归 与 你 们,

    布赖恩

  5. God does things through His angels, so either is correct.

    Exodus XII 23: And the LORD shall pass by to smite the Egyptians, and shall see blood upon the lintel, and upon both the door posts; and the LORD shall pass by the door, and shall not suffer THE DESTROYER TO ENTER INTO YOUR HOUSES TO SMITE YOU.

  6. I thought of the same thing as well. There are similarity between the Chinese new year and passover. It should have taken a long time time to pass the story to a long distance. I think it is common among Chinese Christian. I talked to different people about this idea. Not too many agree. I am grad to see you post it.

  7. Chinese New Year Originated from Africa

    Chinese New Year is around the corner, 31 January and 1 February this year (2014), so allow me to share with you a rather interesting observation through my own research on the origins of the Chinese New Year celebrations.

    The origins seem to have started in Africa. Is that shocking to you? Just hang on and read on.

    Chinese mythology about the Chinese New Year has it that on the New Year eve, a monster called “Nian” lurks outside your house waiting to devour you when you come out. That is why you are supposed to stay at home and partake the “Family Reunion Dinner”. On the exterior doorposts you paste “Red Paper with Words of Blessing” and a “Red Cloth over the lintel(upper frame) to frighten Nian away, because Nian is fearful of red colour. Then at midnight, “Nian will pass over” or go away from your house. The people then come out of their houses to celebrate the “passing over of Nian” by praying to the God of Heaven and burning crackers. The sounds of crackers will frighten Nian further away. The event of Nian passing over is called “Guo Nian ” (Nian Passing Over), marks the beginning of the New Year.

    Now if you go back to the Bible in the time of Moses when the Israelites were slaves in Egypt; Moses was called by God to tell the Pharaoh to set the Israelites free from slavery and let go to the desert to worship Him, God. Each time the Pharaoh refused, God would punish Pharaoh and the Egyptians by sending plagues. Finally God gave Pharaoh the ultimatum that if Pharaoh refused one more time, God will send his Angel of Death to visit Egypt at midnight and all the firstborn including the cattles in Egypt would die.

    But God prescribed the antidote for the Israelites with the following instructions:

    1. You are to stay indoor, kill a male lamb in each family and roast the lamb and eat every part of it with bitter herbs. (And they shall eat the flesh in that night, roast with fire, and unleavened bread; and with bitter herbs they shall eat it.) Ex:12:8
    2. The lamb’s blood is to be painted on the doorposts and the lintel, so that when the Angel of Death visits Egypt at midnight and seeing the blood painted doorposts and lintel, he will pass over your house and you and your household will be saved.
    (And they shall take of the blood, and strike it on the two side posts and on the upper door post of the houses, wherein they shall eat it.) Ex:12:7
    3. And it came to pass, that at midnight the LORD smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh that sat on his throne unto the firstborn of the captive that was in the dungeon; and all the firstborn of cattle. Ex:12:29
    4. Tomorrow you will pack up your belongings and depart for the desert and worship God. (We will go three days’ journey into the wilderness, and sacrifice to the LORD our God, as He shall command us. And Pharaoh said, I will let you go, that ye may sacrifice to the LORD your God in the wilderness; only ye shall not go very far away: intreat for me.) Ex:8:27,28

    Now can you see the parallel?

    1. The reunion dinner and the eating of the lamb in the house.
    2. The red paper and cloth and the lamb’s blood on the door posts and lintel.
    3. Nian passing over at midnight and the Death Angel passing over at midnight.
    4. The Chinese came out to pray to the God of Heaven after midnight, while the Israelites the following day left for the wilderness to sacrifice to the LORD God.

    The Jewish Passover Feast is a celebration of liberation from their slavery in Egypt. There is a great possibility that the Chinese New Year was borrowed from the Jewish Passover. And since the whole story begun in Egypt and Egypt is in the African Continent, it follows that the origins of the Chinese New Year is from Africa.

    ChunJie and Passover Spring Festival
    What further intrigued me was that the usage of the term ChunJie(for Chinese New Year), which means Spring Festival in Mandarin.
    Chinese New Year always fall between end January and mid-February. This year it falls on 31 January.
    What I find anomalous is that neither the end of January nor mid-February is anywhere near Spring, and yet it is called the Spring Festival. Spring in the Northern Hemisphere is always end of March. This year the Passover is 25 Mar to 2 April. Could it be that the ‘Spring Festival’ term is borrowed from the Jewish term, ‘Hag HaAviv’ meaning ‘the Spring Festival’, which is the Passover.
    The 15 Days
    And whilst the Jewish Passover is celebrated beginning on the 15th day of the month, the Chinese celebrate their New Year for 15 days, culminating with the Lantern Festival. Again, the similarity of 15th and 15 days. Could ancient communication suffered some distortions, when 15th day was mistaken for 15 days?

    Reference:
    Passover has several different names in the Torah. The name Hag HaAviv, “the spring festival,” refers to the holiday’s agricultural roots. The term Pesach refers to the paschal offering on the fourteenth day of Nisan. The lamb was eaten on the first night of the holiday, which today is the night of the first seder. The term Hag HaMatzot, “the matzah festival,” refers to the entire holiday during which leavened bread is not eaten.
    http://jewishappleseed.org/apple/passover.htm
    Ex:12:18: In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month at even, ye shall eat unleavened bread, until the one and twentieth day of the month at even.
    De:16:1: Observe the month of Abib, and keep the passover unto the LORD thy God: for in the month of Abib the LORD thy God brought thee forth out of Egypt by night.
    Nu:9:11: The fourteenth day of the second month at even they shall keep it, and eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs.
    Nu:28:17: And in the fifteenth day of this month is the feast: seven days shall unleavened bread be eaten.

    Above article by Edmond Tay. Email: etayetay@singnet.com.sg

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