Lantern Festival (Yuánxiāojié 元宵节)

Did you hear the fireworks last night? Can you still hear?

Yesterday (Feb 9, 2009), the fifteenth day of the first month, was Lantern Festival. Lantern Festival comes 15 days after Chinese New Year, and marks the end of the Chinese New Year celebration. Lantern Festival is also the last day that fireworks are legally allowed.

REASONING BEHIND FIREWORKS

In ancient times, the Chinese would fill bamboo stems with gunpowder that would be burnt to create small explosions to drive away evil spirits. Now, in modern times, firecrackers are used. The myth is that evil spirits are scared away by the loud popping noises and explosions that fireworks emit. Fireworks also indicate a joyful time of year, and have become a very important part of Chinese New Year celebrations.

POPULAR ACTIVITIES DURING LANTERN FESTIVAL

Lantern Festival is not to be confused with Mid-Autumn Festival (aka Moon Festival, “Zhongqiujie” 中秋节), which is held on the 15th day of the eighth month in the Chinese calendar, which is usually around mid or late September.

Lanterns
You will notice that lanterns are hung everywhere. They are usually red in colour and tend to be oval in shape.

Sometimes these lanterns have riddles, and a popular activity is for people to guess these riddles. At other times, these lanterns simply contain messages of good fortune, family reunion, abundant harvest, prosperity and love.

Food (tāngyuán汤圆)
A popular food item to be eaten during this time is “yuanxiao”, which is a glutinous rice ball that has a filling inside. Fillings will vary from the traditional black sesame, or red bean, to green tea or even chocolate fillings.

HISTORY
The 15th day of the 1st lunar month is the Chinese Lantern Festival because the first lunar month is called yuan-month and in the ancient times people called night Xiao. The 15th day is the first night to see a full moon. So the day is also called Yuan Xiao Festival in China.
To the Chinese, the roundness of the moon is important to them because it symbolizes harmony, unity, and “completeness”.

Chinese New Year: Popular Greetings

A popular greeting to bring in the new year, which is equivalent to “Happy New Year”, is 新年快乐 (Xīnnián kuàilè). I have often heard my Chinese friends say, 元旦快乐 (yuándàn kuàilè), which means the same thing.

Another popular greeting is 恭喜发财 (Gōngxǐ fācái), which translates are “Congratulations and be prosperous”. There is a very popular song that is played every new year almost everywhere you go. Listen to this song:

As a joke, some youth would say the phrase, 恭喜发财,红包拿来 (Gōngxǐ fācái, hóngbāo nálái). This phrase translated in English means, “Congratulations and be prosperous, give me a red envelope”.

Chinese New Year: Customs and Practices “风俗习惯“(fēng sú xí guàn)

If you plan on staying in China during the Chinese New Year, it is helpful to be aware of some very common customs and practices, called 风俗习惯(fēng sú xí guàn) in Chinese. Understanding the Chinese tradition will make one’s experience celebrating Spring Festival much more enriching.

FOOD

Food is a very important part of any culture, and the Chinese sure love to feast! An especially important time of year for the family is to have dinner together on lunar New Year’s Eve, called, 除夕(chúxī)
. New Year’s eve dinner usually includes chicken and fish. Also a very common custom in the mainland is to watch the CCTV New Year’s Gala (中国中央电视台春节联欢晚会 “Zhōngguó zhōngyāng diànshìtái chūnjié liánhuān wǎnhuì”), which features drama, dance, and song performances.

RED PACKETS 红包 (hóng bāo)
Red packets contain money and are given by adults to young children. The amount given should usually be of even numbers, as money in odd number amounts are given during funerals. However, the amount in the red envelopes should never add up to 4, as the word four is a homophone for death, 死 (sǐ). A popular amount adds up to 8. While the south of China follows this tradition, people in the north will give amounts of 50 or 100 yuan, not taking into consideration odd and even numbers.

GIFTS 礼物 (lǐwù)
Also customary when going to one’s home is to bring gifts such as fruit, candy, chocolate, and cake.

FIREWORKS 放炮(fàngpào)
A very important part of Chinese tradition during the lunar New Year celebration is to use fireworks. At 12am, on lunar New Year’s Eve, fireworks will begin to go off. Don’t expect to sleep with the amount of noise that is produced from massive amounts of fireworks being set off. The sky is well lit with fireworks at this time. 15 days from this date, Lantern Festival 元宵节 (yuánxiāojié), fireworks are set off again.

CLOTHING
Many will wear red clothing, as red is the symbol of good fortune and scaring away evil spirits.
In another session, we will discuss the logic or beliefs behind these many customs and practices. The next session will feature some very common New Year’s greetings.

Chinese New Year:Preparations

For most westerners, the BIG New Year celebration has already passed. Not so for the Chinese and many other Asian countries that celebrate the lunar New Year (农历新年 Nónglì xīnnián), which falls on January 26th, 2009. Chinese New Year is also known as Spring Festival (春节 Chūnjié), and many mainland Chinese will almost always use this term.

In preparation for this holiday, many will clean their homes, signifying sweeping away the bad luck of the preceding year and making their homes ready for good luck. Homes are often decorated with paper cutouts of Chinese words, such as “good luck”(福 fú), and couplets (春联 chūnlián). Many will also purchase new clothing, shoes and get hair-cuts or new hairstyles to symbolize a fresh start.

Spring Festival Couplets (春联 chūnlián). Many households choose a pair of red couplets and place them on both sides of the front door.

In Northern China, many will prepare dumplings (饺子 jiǎozi), a symbol of wealth, for the big Chinese New Year’s Eve feast. In Southern China, New Year cake (年糕 niángāo) is made. Niangao literally means increasingly prosperous year in year out.

Dumplings (饺子 jiǎozi)

Chinese New Year cake (年糕 niángāo), made of glutinous rice flour.




O,Christmas Tree!

The Story of the 1on1 Mandarin Christmas Tree

(author-Chad, 1on1 Mandarin student)

One of my favorite radio personalities in the U.S. is Paul Harvey. He’s a great storyteller and entertains listeners with little known facts about celebrities, politicians, sports stars, etc. One of his favorite expressions is, “Now, here’s the rest of the story…” I was thinking of this recently when looking at the Christmas tree in the 1on1 Mandarin lobby.

It may look like a perfectly nice, beautiful Christmas tree (held up by a piece of rope, but that’s another matter). But let me tell you the rest of the story…”

Last year was our family’s first Christmas in China. We didn’t know what would be available in the way of Christmas trees and decorations. Thankfully, we were surprised at the numerous options at nearby stores. Many of the stores in WuDaoKou really get into Christmas. The Lotus Center employees even wear Santa hats this time of year.

With limited space in our apartment, we thought we would buy a quaint little 3-4 foot tree to put in our living room. After surveying the options at Lotus, we decided to buy (what we thought was) a tree of that description. Imagine our surprise when we arrived home and unpacked our new tree – only to discover it filled almost every inch of our eight foot tall ceilings!

It reminded me of a scene from the movie National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Clark and his family trudge into the wilderness to find the perfect Christmas tree. Clark is elated when he finds a massive cedar. His son (Russ), however, is the realist. “Dad, that tree wouldn’t fit in our front yard.” Undaunted, Clark responds, “It’s not going in our yard, Russ. It’s going in our living room!” That’s how we felt. Almost every guest in our home last Christmas commented on how tall our tree was, but we gradually grew to like it. You could even say the tree became a source of family pride.

After Christmas was over, we packed our beloved tree and other holiday decorations away (isn’t that a sad moment?) until the next year.

Our tree was out of sight and out of mind in our storage room until one day last spring. My wife came in and said that ants were invading our Christmas tree. I thought this strange, since our tree was artificial and didn’t have any food on it, but for some reason the ants in our apartment thought it looked like a nice home. I put the tree outside our door, away from our kitchen and food.

Now, I intended to give it a few days, then carefully open the box to see if the ants were still in there. But you know how things go. A week turns into a month, a month into half a year…pretty soon, it was November and the box with our tree was still outside the door. Frankly, I’m surprised our ayi, neighbors or building cleaning ladies didn’t throw it away a long time ago.

I was somewhat nervous the day after Thanksgiving this year when it was time to take the tree out the box. Would I find a massive ant colony? Would the tree be eaten into small pieces? Bracing myself, I slowly opened the box. Fortunately, I was pleased to find no trace of ants and the tree still in perfectly good shape…or so I thought.

We unpacked the tree, pieced it together and fixed the branches. Our family tree. Ah, but there was a bit of lean to it. The top third of the tree had a definite angle to it. At first, I told myself it was fine, that the lean just added character. After a few days, however, I couldn’t stand it any longer. The lean had to be fixed. I figured it was because it had been stuffed in a box for almost a year and I could pry it back into shape.

Pry I did. Unfortunately, I pried a little too hard and the top third of tree snapped like a twig. Oops. I felt pretty bad about it, especially since our three-year-old daughter loves Christmas trees and would be quite upset if she woke up in the morning to find that our tree was broken.

Our solution was to use a hot glue gun to meld the tree back together. It could no longer be put in storage, but we could use it for this year at least. Amazingly, the plan worked. We glued the tree back together. Actually, the lean was better, too, but after testing the tree’s sturdiness (or lack thereof), we decided it might not be a good idea to have it in our living room with a preschooler who loves to touch tree ornaments.

The decision was made to buy a new tree that closely resembled our old one. A trip (actually two…that’s another story) to JinWuXing took care of that, but we still had to decide how to dispose of our old tree. We thought about offering it to our neighbors. We thought about standing it up in our hallway as kind of a tree for everyone on our floor, or putting it by the garbage can for some lucky person to find. None of the solutions were satisfactory. Then we had it…how about we donate it to 1on1 Mandarin?!

There probably wouldn’t be any small children running around, so sturdiness shouldn’t be a problem. It was still a serviceable tree (for this year). It would be a shame for it to go to waste. After calling Joel at 1on1, he agreed to take the tree.

I’ve enjoyed the sight of our old tree in the 1on1 Mandarin lobby. Unfortunately for the tree, however, its troubles have not ended. Last week during an English club meeting at 1on1, the tree took an untimely fall. The lean returned. But it ultimately survived and is still standing. It needs a piece of rope tied to 1on1’s projector screen to do so, but it’s still standing.

So that’s the history of the beleaguered 1on1 Mandarin Christmas tree. Other trees will come and go, but it’s doubtful they will provide as many memories as this one. I know I’ll never sing “O Tannenbaum” again without thinking of our first Chinese Christmas tree. It was infested with ants, bent into an unshapely form, broken in two and smushed in the ground. But it persevered and still stands proud (with a little assistance) today. Charlie Brown’s tree has nothing on this baby.

And, that, is the rest of the story. Merry Christmas.