We Chinese are in a festive season. The whole nation is immersed in a holiday air. Chunjie or the Spring Festival has come a long way through Chinese history. Some of its customs are gone, some have stayed on, and new ones are coming along.

writing couplet 

23rd of December


The day is marked as "Xiao Nian", literally translated as "Lesser Spring Festival". In my boyhood, my father worshipped the Kitchen God on the evening of the 23rd. He burned incense and kowtowed to the God at the simple family service. My family had a kind of Chinese cake, baked specially for the occasion. Twelve cakes were baked for the coming 12th months. Thirteen cakes were prepared if the coming year had 13 months. The cakes were presented to the Kitchen God at the service, after which they were served on the table for dinner.


Now my family of three do not have this worshipping ceremony any more. We simply remind each other it is the special day and that it is time we started the festive shopping. We stock up on various foods – meat and vegetables, for example. As the festival is drawing nearer day by day, a shopping rush is on and prices are going up. Fewer and fewer vendors are found at the market working as normal because they are leaving the city for their own festival back in their hometown. All businesses and stalls are closed over the festival except for shops where gifts and fireworks are on sale.


A Thorough Cleaning


A thorough cleaning is scheduled to take place prior to the festival. Bedclothes, curtains, tablecloths and clothes are laundered. The kitchen is scrubbed as clean as new. Dusting, mopping and tidying up are done for the coming festival.


We follow the traditional Chinese calendar when it comes to most Chinese festivals like Yuanxiao, Qingming, Duanwu and Zhongqiu. In the lunar calendar a day, called the Beginning of Spring, marks the start of the first season. The day comes before the Spring Festival some years, and it comes after the Spring Festival other years. There is a chance that the day coincides with the first day of the New Year. When I was a boy, my father did the thorough cleaning on the Beginning of Spring if it fell before the Spring Festival.


The Family Reunion Dinner


A big dinner is had normally on the last day of the old year. This dinner takes place at different times in different places. In my hometown, as far as I remember, this meal is eaten at breakfast time in one village, at lunchtime in my village, and at suppertime in another. Now my family still have this meal at midday.


One village in my hometown do not have the big meal on the last day. They do not have this meal indoors either. Their big dinner takes place at dawn on the first day of the New Year. Their custom dates back to the Ming Dynasty, during which time their ancestors were migrating from Hunan to their present village. Local legend has it that the ancestors were not able to have the big meal on the last day of the old year because they, being chased by bandits, were forced to be fleeing. After a short rest at the turn of the year, they went on their journey again early in the morning. They had to have their family reunion meal at dawn that year. Today the folks still have their big meal at dawn in the open air in memory of their ancestors. The family members are seated on the ground around a winnowing pan, on which the courses are served. No table and chairs are used.


A family’s reunion dinner is the most important meal of the year. All family members are present at the dinner table. Various dishes are served, ranging from vegetables, meats and fruits to local delicacies. Drinking is a must. Teetotallers have water or juice instead of alcoholic drinks.


An absolute majority of Chinese families have the meal at the family home. However, more and more families are opting to organise this dinner party at a restaurant. One reason is that Chinese cooking is rather elaborate. The other reason is that most middle-class families live in a moderate flat, the size of which does not allow for a big get-together. When all the extended family members turn up, there could be as many as 20 people or even more at the gathering.


New Year’s Eve


jiaozi Most people in North and Central China will make jiaozi (dumplings known to foreigners) on the eve of the New Year, because the first meal on the first day of the New Year must be jiaozi. Some families wrap some coins in the dumplings they make. Those who find a coin in a dumpling while eating are supposed to have good luck come their way in the New Year.


Another custom is to stay up on the Eve. Most families will stay up until after midnight, even the whole night, to see the old year out and to welcome the New Year in. At midnight, firecrackers are set off to observe the turn of the year. Can you imagine what it is like when all the families in a neighbourhood are exploding firecrackers at the same time? Is it noisy? A joke goes that an African student who was spending his first Spring Festival in the Chinese capital thought that a battle had started and therefore rushed out of his dorm at the noise of the crackers.


Television has put another fixture into this evening. CCTV, China Central TV, presents a gala, a variety show, to the whole nation. Watching this show while making jiaozi has become an indispensable part of the Spring Festival Eve for almost all families. This show was a hit for the first few years. Successful performers at the show have become national household names. Probably all the Chinese know a name Zhao Benshan as a result of his comedy acts at the gala. As it is done year after year, however, its novelty has worn off. Anyway, dry or entertaining, it is still there for the nation.


Which Day is the Spring Festival?


Exactly speaking, the Spring Festival is one day – the first day of the New Year. However, the holiday season lasts until the 16th of the month, which is called Yuanxiao, or the Lantern Festival. Yuanxiao is the food eaten on the festival. It is translated into sweet dumplings. They are small balls made of sticky rice meal with sesame or nut fillings inside. Boiled or fried, they are more popular in South China than in the North. The name of “Lantern Festival” is fitting too, for it is the custom to display lanterns and folk dances on the festival.

lantern festival 

In ancient times, the festival came to an end on the sixteenth day of January. However, a faster pace of life in contemporary China has shortened the festival season. Most government offices and businesses will open around the fifth or the sixth day of the month. After working for a few days, they will close again for the Lantern Festival on the fifteenth and the sixteenth days of January.


New Clothes


In hard times, the Spring Festival was the only occasion where a family threw off the old attire and put on new clothes specially made for the festival. In my boyhood, on the first morning of the New Year, there was a de facto clothes show in the village street, where folks met, chatted, and exchanged New Year greetings, while complimenting each other on the festival wear.


This custom has almost died. A higher standard of living has rendered it irrelevant, for the Chinese get new clothes anytime they need them.


Red Packets

 red packet

During the festival, seniors give gift money in a red packet to juniors, especially to children and teenagers, who have not reached adulthood. Parents give money to their children, grandparents to their grandchildren, and uncles and aunts to their nephews and nieces. An interesting phenomenon that you will find is that money is being swapped between relatives. Many parents take the gift money away from their children, saying that they might squander it. The true reason is that they have to give a red packet back to the child of the relative who has given money to their child. If they did not reciprocate “the generosity”, they would be considered rude and therefore face would be lost on both parts. Therefore, red packets have to travel in circles among the relatives.


A Couplet on Red Paper

couplet on red paper 

Two scrolls of red paper of equal size are pasted on left and right sides of a door or gate.  A couplet, two rhyming lines carrying an auspicious connotation, is written on the two scrolls. The two lines have the same number of Chinese characters and usually rhyme with each other. The first line is written on the left scroll; the second on the right. The text follows a vertical direction down the scrolls. This custom is still as strong as ever. However, this year, my family has cut out this practice.




Taboos are strong for the festival, especially in rural China. Here are a couple of them my readers might find interesting or amusing.


Taboo 1


No swearing is allowed. People avoid words considered unlucky or inauspicious, such as "death".


Taboo 2


On the first day, people do not pour or throw water out of home. People do not use any knife to cut food in the kitchen. People should not work. Use of brooms is banned on the first day. Any brooming on the first day is thought to sweep good luck and fortune off the family.


Taboo 3


Chinese barbers and hairdressers are rushed off their feet in the run-up to the New Year, for their shops are packed with customers. It is a widely held belief that shedding hair in the first month of the New Year is a bad omen. Probably loss of hair is associated with loss of fortune because they sound the same in Chinese. Do I believe in it? Not at all. I had my hair cut in January many years.




Burning fireworks has been a deep-seated tradition for the Chinese nation. But this practice is dangerous and costly. Accidents with fireworks are common and frequent in the holiday. I had a number of mishaps with fireworks when I was young, leaving a scar on one of my hands. One of my pals lost some of his fingers playing with fireworks in his family yard. In any city the fire brigade is on high alert when the turn of the year approaches. I heard the fire engines sounding amidst fireworks booms around midnight on the Eve this holiday.

firecracker 01 

The government placed a ban on this practice in Chinese cities a couple of decades ago. But this ban has been lifted. People are allowed to set off fireworks in certain areas of a city and for particular times of the festival, for many people protested that without fireworks there would be no festive atmosphere. Also banning the custom would mean loss of thousands of jobs in fireworks factories across the country.


Personally I am against lifting the ban. I wish the ban would be replaced on this dangerous practice. Tower blocks in cities would sound like a battlefield if the residents did the fireworks simultaneously. The blast is unbearable for the healthy, let alone for those who are coincidentally ill. It would be a good idea to organise this ancient custom and make it a safe and joyous affair.


New Year Visits


Visits are exchanged between extended families, in-laws, and neighbours. In my city, people visit their paternal extended families on the first day. On the second day and for a number of days to come, people visit their in-laws and married daughters are supposed to go back to their parents. Of course, a gift is a must on such visits. A visit would not be complete without a lavish dinner.


Some customs concerning the visits have completely disappeared in mainland China. One example is kowtowing. Before 1949, juniors had to kowtow to their seniors on the visits as a way to show respect. No mainland Chinese practises kowtowing now.


Family Reunion


Going home for the Spring Festival is written in Chinese genes. It seems that the whole nation is on the go around this time of year. Therefore, the national transport system is strained by huge numbers of travellers on the way.  Crowded trains and packed buses are commonplace. Travelling at this time of year in China is like fighting a war. The world this year has had a better understanding of this Chinese feature through telly pictures of the Guangzhou Railway Station and of all the vehicles marooned on the Beijing-Zhuhai Expressway by the blizzard. The Guangzhou Railway Station was crammed with homegoers and the aforesaid expressway bore dragon-like trains of homeward-bound cars, buses and coaches.

crowds at guangzhou train station 

Where modern means of transport are inaccessible for whatever reason, some people will resort to a primitive way of travel – they will go home on foot. During the blizzard, a man who had been stranded on the freeway left his coach and started to walk home. He spent over 10 days on the road. When relief workers found him, he was in a miserable state, with worn-out shoes and frozen clothes.


Many believe that better transport networks would ease the problem. Bullet trains, long-distance coaches and civil flights are on the governmental agenda. However, the mammoth population would make the effort bear little conspicuous fruit in the near future.


Folk Dances

lion dance 

The fifteenth day of lunar January is the Lantern Festival or Yuanxiao. Around the festival, lanterns are hung at gates and public places and folk dances are performed. Nowadays such folk dances are rare. When I lived in my village, I was able to enjoy lion dances, boat dances and dragon dances. All the dancers were amateurs. They did it just for fun.


However, this custom is dying out in most communities. In cities you would be lucky to watch such dances. In the country, young peasants are in a hurry to go back to their city jobs as early as the fifth day of the New Year. Who on earth could afford the time to do the dances, and, moreover, would there be any pay for them? Money talks in China now.


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