For days now Chinese people have been travelling all over the country to return to their home towns to celebrate Spring Festival, the beginning of the lunar new year. During the two separate years (1989-90 and 1995-96) we spent in Beijing we learned about the importance of this holiday.
In the west, New Year’s Eve means a party and greeting the new year at midnight, but in China it means 20 days of celebration with family, surrounding themselves with symbols of good luck and wealth. The trip to be with family is the most essential. This is so vital that even the repressive Communist government allowed for a 20 day holiday and gave permission for spouses, who were often assigned work in different places, to travel and be together for the duration of Spring Festival. This was one of the things it was so difficult for me to understand while we were there, the huge numbers of couples who were separated from each other, and often from their children who ended up living with grandparents in a third location.
Once together, families make jiaozi together. Jiaozi are the little stuffed dumplings made in the shape of silver money that are symbolic of wishes for a new year stuffed with good good things. Long noodles are served, a wish for long life. Oranges abound, an obvious wish for wealth, as are sweets of any kind a wish for sweetness in the new year.
The red lanterns are a symbol of reunion and prosperity. Other fancy lanterns can also be made for the celebration. My friend Betty and I spent a long afternoon in 1996 riding our bikes through the dusty alleys of a part of Beijing where we had been told a lantern maker lived. Betty was quite fluent in Chinese or we never would have found the man who made beautiful paper or silk lanterns, an art that is dying. I have two grandsons born in 1996, the year of the rat (or is it mouse – we were never clear) and so I bought a small paper lantern with a paper cut of the mouse, as well as a small red silk lantern, trimmed with gold. We could not afford, nor imagine how to ship, the beautiful big complex lanterns like the beautiful giant koi fish.
So today I look at my snow covered fields and remember that in Beijing, a desert city, the snow would also have been a good omen for the coming new year. Happy New Year! Xin Nian Hao!