By Dawn Wong
Chinese New Year, also known as “Spring Festival”, is one of the largest festivals globally, celebrated annually by nearly a quarter of the world’s population. It is the most important social and economic holiday on the Chinese calendar.
Steeped in traditions dating back 5000 years, this timeless festival remains relevant today. Several countries across the globe still celebrate this festival religiously as a way to preserve the rich cultural identities and memories of their respective communities.
Discover the unique customs surrounding this important festival and how various countries herald the arrival of the new year.
Tet is Vietnam’s answer to Chinese New Year. For the Vietnamese, Tet is like the Holy Trinity: Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve all combined into one. It is a time to return home to families and celebrate the upcoming new year. Tet, shortened from Tet Nguyen Dan, is the most important holiday in Vietnam and marks the arrival of spring.
Preparations for Tet begin two weeks before the actual day. Houses are cleaned, new clothes are bought, and debts are paid off; these actions symbolise new beginnings. Bustling markets spring to life as food is purchased for family reunions where elaborate and substantial meals are cooked. Flowers, such as peach blossoms, kumquat trees, and chrysanthemums are also in abundance. These are important decorations for Tet; in Hoi An and Hue, chrysanthemums give the streets a golden hue.
Tet lasts for nine days, with the first being the most important. At midnight, the city of Hanoi launches a spectacular fifteen-minute firework show over Hoan Kiem Lake.
Vietnamese enjoy special holiday foods such as bánh chưng and bánh dầy. Preparations for these foods are extensive. Family members often take turns to keep a watch on the fire overnight while telling each other stories. A popular traditional food in Tet is Mut (candied fruits) which is served as a snack to welcome guests.
Other customs practiced during Tet include visiting a person’s house on the first day of the new year (xông nhà), ancestral worship, giving lucky money to children and elderly people and opening a shop.
The Mongolian Lunar New Year, commonly known as Tsagaan Sar is the most widely celebrated holiday in Mongolia. It is a time where family ties are renewed and the elderly are revered. A typical Mongol family will be dressed in traditional Mongol costumes as they convene in the homes of the eldest in the family. While greeting their elders, the younger generation will perform the zolgokh greeting: grasping them by their elbows to show support for them. During this greeting ceremony, family members hold long, typically blue, silk cloths called a khadag. After the ceremony, gifts will be exchanged and the family will feast on traditional delicacies.
These include dairy products, rice with curds (tsagaa-цагаа) or rice with raisins (berees-бэрээс), a pyramid of traditional cookies erected on a large dish in a special fashion symbolising Mount Sumeru or Shambhala realm, grilled sheep or minced mutton steamed inside pastry dumplings known as buuz, and traditional cookies. In addition to food, the host family will present gifts to the visitors and sweets to the children.
The historical enclave of Chinatown comes to life with bustling activities and streets lined with beautifully-designed lanterns every Chinese New Year. Visitors are treated to a multi-sensory extravaganza as they are charmed nightly by lion dances, nightly street shows and vendors selling a mouth-watering plethora of snacks and food.
Apart from the annual Chinatown Light-up, there are other key events of the season too. These include a festive street bazaar in Chinatown and the Singapore River Hong Bao. The street bazaar is a huge maze of stalls selling traditional foods like Bak Kwa (barbecued sweetmeats), flowers, handicrafts, and decorations. The queues for Bak Kwa are phenomenal, snaking from one end of the street to the other. Loyal customers are however, undeterred as they wait patiently in line.
The Float@Marina Bay will host the yearly Singapore River Hong Bao carnival. The festivities include nightly cultural performances, art work and larger-than-life lanterns fashioned after popular Singapore landmarks.
Another major activity of the season is the “Chingay”, which translates to “costume and masquerade”. This is a two-night street party and parade that marks the climax of the Chinese New Year celebration. With more than 150 local organisations and performers from all over the globe this fanfare is a spectacle of colours, costumes, dance and music that will enthral both locals and tourists alike.
Chinese New Year is a time for families to be reunited and people are expected to come home to celebrate with their families. The Chinese New Year’s Eve dinner also known as the ‘reunion dinner’, and is believed to be the most important meal of the year. After the dinner, families will gather together to watch the Spring Festival Gala, one of the most popular shows in China.
It is a Chinese tradition to set off firecrackers during the New Year celebrations. From public displays in major cities to private celebrations in China’s rural areas, fireworks are a ubiquitous part of the festivities. Billions of fireworks go up all over the country at the stroke of midnight. In traditional Chinese culture, firecrackers were originally used to scare away evil spirits. As the legend goes, the monster Nian would come out to eat villagers each New Year’s Eve. The villagers discovered that the burning of dry bamboo would produce explosive sounds, scaring away the monster. Fireworks have since become a perennial part of Chinese New Year celebrations.
Food eaten during this season usually have symbolic meanings such as fish, which sounds like the Chinese word for ‘surplus’. The luckiest Chinese New Year foods that are commonly consumed are fish, which symbolises prosperity, Chinese dumplings which mean great health and glutinous rice cake, which are a symbol of high income and status.
The Lunar New Year in Bhutan is a time of family reunion and strengthening of cultural rituals and ties. Its origins can be traced back to the 7th century, where the preachers of the Bon religion began an annual festival of celebration of New Year, which they called Losar Festival. Just like many other inheritances from the Bon religion, the Losar was one of them and is celebrated until today. Known as Buddhist or Tibetan New Year, the Losar is also celebrated in Nepal and Tibet. It is based on the Luno solar calendar, which is the same of Chinese calendar, it is the Himalayan equivalent of the Chinese New Year.
This is a time of great happiness among the Bhutanese as they believe that if they are very happy during Losar, the new year will be full of joy. For that reason, they drink and eat a lot, because they derive pleasure from such activities. They also enjoy dancing and singing traditional music, as well as playing the national sport, archery. Killing of animals during Losar is forbidden, so all meat shops are closed during this period. The celebration itself lasts up to two weeks, and it includes the preparation of special dishes, visiting shrines and temples, cleaning houses from unused objects, dancing and singing. Losar is a perfect time to try the various national dishes of Bhutan. People cook red rice, stews, and chilli peppers. The sweet menu includes fried biscuits, diced sugar cane, and fruit. According to tradition, green bananas and sugarcane should be present on a New Year’s table, as they bring goodness for an upcoming year.
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