Besides celebrating the arrival of spring, this Festival celebrates the unity of the family. It is a time for members of the family and friends to get together, to strengthen family ties and enhance interpersonal relationships. It is also a time to remember the less privileged in society. During the New Year celebration, clan associations and community organisations in Singapore give out “hongbaos” (red-packets with cash) to the poorer senior members of the community to show their respect and care.
Preparations to usher in the Chinese New Year begin as early as a week before the start of the first lunar month.
Sending off the Kitchen God
On the 24th day of the twelfth month of the lunar calendar, some Chinese conduct a ritual practice of sending the kitchen god off. In folk customs, the kitchen god (zaojun) returns to heaven to make a report of the family he guards to the celestial emperor on this day. Families would prepare a sumptuous feast for the god to ensure that he put in a good word for them to the celestial emperor. Often the offerings would include the sweet brown rice cake (nian gao) for the purpose of “sweetening” the mouth of the kitchen god.
Reunion Dinner on New Year’s Eve
On new year’s eve, all family members get together to enjoy a reunion dinner. The dinner signifies peace and harmony for the family.
Ying Chun Jie Fu (Ushering in the Spring and Receiving Good Fortune)
Traditionally the new zodiac year begins at 11 pm on the eve of the new year. Today, New Year is ushered at midnight. Around this time, some people offer prayers to usher in the spring and receive good fortune. Others prefer to visit a temple to pray for good luck.
New Year Couplets
In the old days the Chinese used to paste the character ufun (good fortune) above the door and a pair of couplets on the doors. In Singapore, “fu” is sometimes pasted upside down to convey the auspicious meaning of the arrival of good fortune (the sound of 到 “dao”, arrival is the same as that of 倒, upside-down). Writing couplets for the New Year is now a popular competition among students.
First Day of Lunar New Year
The first day of the New Year is the most important day. Early in the morning junior members of the family, namely children and grandchildren, offer their elders New Year greetings by saying auspicious words. They receive “hongbao” (red packet) in return. The colour red symbolises good luck and auspiciousness.
On this day, everyone is expected to be gracious and polite, nobody must say things that are inauspicious or quarrel with others. In the more traditional families, black clothes are avoided.
Bainian (New-year Visits)
The practice of “bainian” is observed any day from the first to the 15th day of the month. Usually a pair of Mandarin oranges are presented to signify good luck. When people meet they would greet each other with such auspicious phrases as “gongxi facal (wishes for prosperity) or “xinnian jinbu” (to advance in the new year) or “xinnian ruyi” (to have all your wishes fulfilled in the new year).
Many clan associations and trade associations now organise “tuan bai” (mass New Year greeting parties) whereby members congregate to exchange good wishes for the coming year.
Renri (Birthday of Mankind)
The 7th day of the New Year is known as “renri“, the birthday of mankind. As it is everybody’s birthday, friends and relatives get together to celebrate with a meal. In Singapore the meal would include a fish salad “yu means raw fish but it also rhymes with “abundance of success”. Hence, it is now the practice for Singaporeans to toss the raw fish and vegetables to “lao yusheng” to create an abundance of success. During the meal the diners usually stand up to shout their wishes for good health, prosperity and career advancement in the coming year.
Praying to Tiangong the Celestial Emperor
Praying to the “tiangong” the Celestial Emperor in the late evening of the 8th day or on the 9th day of the New Year is a Hokkien (Fujian) custom. In folklore, “tiangong” is the supreme god whose birthday falls on that day. There are various legends regarding the origin of this festival. According to one story, Japanese pirates used to attack the Eastern coastal area of China during the Ming dynasty, some 400 years ago. Once, just before the New Year some pirates raided the farming villages along the Fujian coast, forcing the villagers to abandon their homes and run inland. Some of them saved their lives by hiding in the sugarcane plantations. To show their gratitude they prayed to “tiangong” for their safe delivery. For this reason, many Hokkien families offer sugarcanes when they pray to the Celestial Emperor on this day.
Yuanxiao Jie refers to the 15th and the last day of the New Year and is also known as the Lantern Festival because it used to be celebrated with lantern displays in ancient China. The moon is full and bright on Yuanxiao night, creating the most romantic setting for lovers’ rendezvous in ancient times.