Happy New Year! Congratulations for not being eaten!

This morning we woke up to fireworks and firecrackers, and the accompanying car alarms. Tonight we’ll go to sleep (assuming we sleep) to the same, only much more so. It’s the last day of the last month in the Chinese lunar calendar – Chinese New Year’s Eve. These huge fireworks stands are all over the city. I assume that most people light fireworks because, hey, who wouldn’t want an excuse to light fireworks? Plus, for Chinese, lots of noise helps make an event rè nao (热闹) – exciting, noisy, bustling, lively, happy, etc.

But there is a traditional story behind the fireworks and people wearing red (Jessica’s teacher’s grandmother is wearing red everything: socks, undies, and long-underwear included), I suppose occupying the place that Santa Claus does in the West. It goes something like this, as our friends told us last night: Long ago monster called the nián (年; same character as “year”) lived on the mountain, and would sometimes come down and eat people, especially around midnight on New Years. The nián shòu (年兽 – year monster) hated the colour red and fire/loud noise (I never got a straight answer on this point). So, when New Years approaches, the people would dress in red, especially if they belong to that year’s animal (this coming year is the year of the mouse, last year was the pig), and light tons of firecrackers and fireworks. When the nián looked down from the mountain, it found a sea of red, smoke, and loud noise, and was too afraid to come down and eat everyone. I’ve heard speculation that the traditional greeting of, “Congratulations! May you get rich!” grew out of congratulating one another for not getting eaten, but I have no idea if that has any basis in reality or not. We had some local friends over last night, and one of them had to explain the name of the monster to the other. You can see an fuller version of this story online here.

The CNY decorations have pictures of cute mice in them this year, including Mickey & Minnie Mouse and Tom & Jerry. I took this picture of Mickey Mouse yesterday at Tianjin’s “Ancient Culture Street” (a cool-looking tourist trap). He’s holding a sign that says “Spring” (春; chūn), for the Spring Festival.

People being preparing for the Spring Festival weeks in advance; the lunar calendar prescribes certain preparations for certain days leading up to and passing Chinese New Year. CNY is the biggest holiday in Chinese culture, and everyone who can returns to their hometown to “pass the year” with all their family members (and most of the businesses close for a week). One older man told us how some years there was literally “standing room only” in his family’s house.

We passed our first Chinese New Year in Taiwan as guests at a family’s home, where we shared a huge meal, played má jiàng (麻将), and then found out the hard way that all the shops close for a week and it’s hard to find food (especially if you’re deaf, dumb, and illiterate)! Last year we were in Thailand. This year we spent the day with friends yesterday, and plan to run around all over the city on the week off.


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