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:
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.