Welcome to the Year of the Ox! You’ve finally made it through 2020! Now it’s time to mark the end of the chaotic old and officially welcome in the new. As we enter the month of February in 2021, we are nearing one of the most momentous and colourful festivals in the world– Lunar New Year. Even though this year’s celebratory atmosphere may not be as lively and vibrant as we would have hoped due to COVID-19 restrictions, it is nonetheless still important to appreciate the presence of family and friends as we step into a new year. The Exchange hopes to provide you with a deeper understanding into the festival’s legends and rituals, given its significance and implications in many aspects of Asian culture.
1. Lunar New Year 2021
Lunar New Year, also commonly known as Spring Festival or the Chinese New Year, falls on Friday February 12 this year. The festival is called the Lunar New Year because it marks the first new moon of the lunisolar calendar. Celebrations kick off on New Year’s Eve with a family feast full of traditional Lunar New Year foods and lasts for 15 days, culminating when the full moon arrives.
2. The story of the Ox
In the Chinese zodiac story, the ox is the second of all traditional animals, symbolising honesty and hard work. According to one myth, the Jade Emperor proclaimed that the order of the zodiac would be decided by the order in which the animals arrived at his party. To attend his party, the animals had to swim cross a river. However, terrified of the fast-flowing tides, the rat tricked the kind ox into giving him a ride. Then, just as they arrived at the finish line, the rat jumped off and landed ahead of ox, leaving the ox in second place.
3. Firecrackers are for scaring away monsters!
As the legend goes, a scary-looking, half-lion monster called “Nian” would come out of hiding to eat villagers and despoil their houses on each New Year’s Eve. To protect themselves, villagers would light bamboo stalks on fire to scare away the monster with loud noise. Nowadays, we watch firecrackers as a way to maintain old tradition whilst also blessing our eyes with incredibly spectacular blazes that light up the sky.
4. Wearing red is critical
Red has long been a colour associated with prosperity and luck in Chinese culture. Yet the reason why red is even more critical during Lunar New Year is also related to its protective qualities. Apart from loud noises, “Nian” is also frightened by the colour red, which explains all the red you see on the streets when people put up New Year decorations. Red wards of bad spirits and welcomes in good fortune.
5. Time to eat these lucky foods!
Certain dishes are eaten during Lunar New Year for their symbolic meanings. We call them the lucky foods! These include, but are not limited to, dumplings, glutinous rice balls and fish.
Dumplings– wealth. Their boat-shaped, oval-like appearance looks similar to Chinese silver ingots. Legend has it that the more dumplings you eat during the New Year, the wealthier you will become in the new year.
Glutinous rice ball – family togetherness. Its Chinese pronunciation and round shape are associated with reunion and togetherness. Fish – prosperity. In Chinese, Yú (fish) sounds like ‘surplus’ so eating fish signifies having surplus at the end of the year. People believe that if they manage to save something at the end of the year, they can make more in the next year.
6. Red pockets, red packets, red envelopes….
What are these magical red things? They are known as “lucky money” or “New Year’s money”. They are traditional gifts young children receive from elders during Lunar New Year. The money in these pockets symbolise wishes of hope and good luck from the givers. By giving the money to children, elders are hoping to pass on a year of blessings and good fortune.