Chinese New Years day was last Thursday, the 19th of February. Much like new years celebrations in the west the night before is a time to gather with friends and family so we can eat, drink, and set shit on fire in the streets at midnight. Ok, so maybe we don’t set off tons of explosives in the streets on New Years Eve in the west, but we should really think about doing it from now on because it is awesome. Our personal celebration was pretty low-key compared to the locals. We had a late nap, a nice big dinner, tacos I think – very Chinese, and sat around waiting for midnight to come so we could grab the cameras and hit the streets looking for action. We didn’t go far because our hotel, as well as many in the district, had fireworks displays of their own – and by fireworks displays I mean they block off a section of the main road in town, The People’s Road, set out scores of boxes containing 20-50 mortars apiece, and then light them up at the stroke of 00:00.
Before I go any further I must explain that Chinese New Year, or the Chinese Spring Festival, isn’t just arsonists running wild in the streets. We have only lived here a few months and don’t know every detail of the celebration but the gist is that it is a time for families to reconvene and prepare for a new and prosperous year. People buy small gifts for each other, give ornately decorated red envelopes of money to their favorite people, and cook elaborate feasts. There are lion dances and beautiful red and gold decorations everywhere, and my favorite part is that everyone seems to be enjoying themselves. The stores are mobbed and the lines are incredible but everyone is jazzed to be back in their hometown with their families. We may have to see about importing some friends and family members over for next year’s festival.
Within the tradition there is a good reason for the fireworks and the red decorations. Legend has it that the Nian, a beast with extreme appetites and a bad-ass attitude, would come down from the mountains or out of the sea each spring and eat all the stored food in the villages, then when that was finished the Nian would start eating all of the people as well. Naturally this sort of unchecked aggression would not stand (man) so someone figured out what the bad-ass beast was scared of – the color red and loud fireworks – Bob’s your uncle, crisis solved and a celebration is created.
The following day I went down hard with a man-sized cold (I think) and I am just now starting to feel right again. Because I was sick we didn’t do much more celebrating that didn’t involve NyQuil. The Spring Festival is still going though and I am told that this Wednesday evening will be another big night for fireworks so maybe I will have more for you soon. The Lantern Festival is the official end of Chinese New Year festivities and this year it is held on March 5th, but most people will go back to their jobs this Thursday. Traffic will pick back up, the decorations will be put away for another year, and we will all move into the spring and the new year afresh. Gong xi fa cai!
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