It has been a week since the start of the year of the Tiger (14 Feb).
No, no, the Lunar New Year festival is far from over yet. In fact, we are just about in the middle of it. The celebration will go on until the 15th day.
This festival is celebrated in places where you can find Chinese. Every year, the mood in Chinatown all over the world is lifted during this festival. In the Chinese language, this festival is known as 'nian' （年）.
Legend has it that, 'nian' was a mythical beast who would come on the first day of the new year and attack the people and eat little children. It was later found that 'nian' was afraid of things in red and disliked loud noises. Since then, almost everything related to Lunar New Year takes the theme of red and firecrackers are used to create the much-needed loud noise to 'chase the beast away'. The use of firecrackers has been banned in Singapore since the 1970s.
Although Lunar New Year is celebrated in many parts of the world, it is not necessarily a statutory holiday. In Singapore, the first two days of the New Year are always declared as public holidays. However, since the first day of new year this year falls on a Sunday, the third day is also declared as a public holiday.
The Lunar New Year has been celebrated for about 4700 years now. Many parts of its tradition are still being observed but in modified ways. Today, Lunar New Year celebrations are looking slightly differently in different parts of the world. In Singapore, we have our ways too.
Before New Year
Traditionally, families would give their homes a thorough scrub in the weeks just before the new year. This ritual is known as "Spring Cleaning" and with this, it is believed that all the bad luck would have been swept out and good luck would follow.
In Singapore, this is largely observed too but with a modern twist. Given our busy lifestyle, may families would engage professional cleaners to 'sweep away the bad luck' for them.
Eve of New Year
Traditionally, it is important that family members come together on this day for a 'reunion dinner'. Members who are away would make their way home just in time for this symbolic meal. However, daughters who are married are expected to attend the dinner with their husbands.
Singapore is a small country and at any one time, family members are usually not more than an hour away and 'reunion dinner' would often include married daughters as well. It is therefore impractical for married couples to attend two 'reunion dinners' in a night. Given this, 'reunion dinners' could be held over a few days before the start of the new year.
The first day is traditionally welcomed after the 'reunion dinner'. Members of the family would stay up till midnight (守岁). Little children would also be allowed to stay up late while they await their 'hong bao' (红包) which will be given out by the elders and married couples. 'Hong bao' is a gift of money in red envelopes and is traditionally believed to 'chase away evil spirit'.
In Singapore, not everyone would stay up till midnight. Rather, many would begin their 'new year visits' (拜年) in the morning. Such visits refer to going to houses and send new year greetings in person with some gifts. Visitors are also expected to prepare 'hong bao' which are to be given to unmarried juniors. While not everyone expects expensive gifts, bringing mandarin oranges is a must. These oranges symbolize 'fortune' and they are to be presented in even numbers.
It is in the Chinese tradition to expect married daughters to 'belong' to their husbands' families. As such, they are 'allowed to visit their birth parents only on the second day of new year.
This concept is totally alien in Singapore. Over here, married daughters often live near their birth parents so that they get the much needed help and support from them. They visit their birth parents every other day if not daily.
Third and Fourth Days
It is believed that it is inappropriate to visit friends and relatives on these two days. This is to avoid possible argument and bad luck. Some families would traditionally reserve this day for grave visiting instead.
Given that there are only two public holidays in Singapore, the third day of Lunar New Year would typically mean the first working day after rounds of heavy feasting. 'New Year visits' would normally slow down to almost zilch. While at work, co-workers would come together to continue the new year celebration by having elaborate lunches together.
This day is traditionally known as 'renri' (人日) which means the 'birthday of all mankind'. It is on this day that everyone is a year older. According to beliefs, the first day of the Lunar New Year is the 'birthday' for 'Chicken'. This is followed by 'birthdays' for 'Dog', 'Pig', 'Sheep', "Cow' and 'Horse' on the second day to the sixth day of the new year.
In Singapore, 'renri' is typically celebrated by having a meal which includes raw fish salad known as 'yusheng' (鱼生). It is believed that 'yusheng' is a dish created in Singapore in the 1960s. The salad is eaten by tossing shredded vegetables, sauces and raw fish with chopsticks. While tossing, everyone would cite 'auspicious wishes' aloud. It can get quite messy but it is fun.
Eighth and Ninth Days
The birthday of the Jade Emperor (玉皇大帝), the Taoist ruler of Heaven, is believed to be on the ninth day of new year. The celebration of his birthday would begin with a thanksgiving prayer and an elaborate dinner on the eve. Sugarcane is a must in this celebration and it would be offered during the prayer. It is believed that many generations ago, the Chinese from the Fujian Province (福建) escaped from their enemies while hiding in a sugarcane plantation. This explains the importance of this celebration for the Fujian people.
This tradition is observed in Singapore, especially for Chinese who have their origin from the Fujian Province.
Tenth to Thirteenth Days
As these days are still part of Lunar New Year festival, any superstition and practice are expected to be observed. Some of the superstitions include staying away from death and the dying, refrain from using foul languages or say anything which suggests bad luck.
In Singapore, life would have resumed normalcy for awhile by now. However, most people are still seen in red clothing and some 'new year visits' would still take place especially in the evenings and over the weekends. Unmarried juniors are often keen to participate in such visits as their 'hong bao' collection will go on until the last day of Lunar New Year.
Fourteen and Fifteenth Days
The fifteenth day is known as 'Yuan Xiao Jie' (元宵节) and it is also known as the 'Lantern Festival'. It is traditionally celebrated by eating rice dumpling known as 'tangyuan' (汤圆) and lighting lanterns to ward off evil spirits. The celebration would often include solving riddles which are placed on the lanterns (猜灯谜).
'Yuan Xiao Jie' is also celebrated in Singapore. However, there are usually no lanterns. 'Lantern Festival' is more commonly known to be another celebration which takes place on the 15th day of the Eighth Lunar Month, also known as the 'Mid-Autumn Festival' (中秋节）.
That wraps up the 15 days of Lunar New Year celebration in a traditional way, as well as the 'Uniquely Singapore' way.
Over time, many Chinese traditions would have been modified or lost due to modernization. Whatever it is, so long as modern Chinese continue to observe these traditions in the contemporary way, we can go on having some form of continuity with the past while harmonizing the present with the rest of the people and the world.
May this year be a 'roaring' tiger year to everyone!
“Tradition simply means that we need to end what began well and continue what is worth continuing”
~ Jose Bergamin ~