*The traditional Chinese New Year’s greeting in Cantonese and Mandarin
Today is the fifteenth and final day of the celebration of the 6th year in the 12 year cycle of the solar-lunar calendar in most Asian cultures. According to the astrology and legends of Northern Asia this is the year of the Snake.
After the turbulent year of the Dragon, the snake is a more positive sign, and it will likely bring advances in science, education and research. It is important to be open-minded during the year of the snake, which will be an exciting 12 months. Every one should be on the look-out for jealousy and secrets that work against their interests. It will be a year filled with new and different challenges.
For an individual horoscope for your own lunar sign why not check here. But remember that much the luck for the year begins on your birthday – so in my case the predictions won’t take hold until December.
The first month of the lunar calender is Yuan and the old Mandarin word for night was xiao: so today is the Yuanxiao (元宵节) or Lantern Festival. The evening of the first full moon of the New Year is celebrated by filling the night with the light from lanterns and solving riddles inscribed on the lanterns, lighting candles outside houses to guide wayward spirits, eating glutinous rice balls (yuanxiao or tangyuan) and meeting with family and friends who are like family.
In earlier times it was also a busy time for matchmakers: young people went out chaperoned by parents or family and introductions were made between marital prospects. With time the romantic (?) aspects of the festival gave way to the more generally festive in Northern countries; however it is still celebrated in Malaysia as a day when single women write their contact on mandarin oranges and throw them in a nearby lake or river. The young men collect the oranges and eat them. The taste is a good indication of how their relationship with the young lady will turn out – sweet or sour. Apparently the demand for sweet oranges is rather high this time of year.
The stories of how the Lantern Festival came to be are many and vary from place to place and often from century to century. Some are very simple – Taiyi, the ancient god of heaven had 16 dragons and used them to control the destiny of the human world. Emperor Qinshihuang, who first united China, held the first Lantern Festival to ask Taiyi for good weather and health.
Perhaps the most complex also explains the name of the rice balls eaten on the last day of the New Year. During the Han Dynasty a young maid at the palace of the Emperor was about to jump to her death when she was stopped from this rash act by a wish old man. He discovered that she was despondent because she had not seen her family and done her filial duty in many years. The wise man promised that she would see her family by the end of the New Year.
He set up a fortune-telling booth in the town and everyone who came to him to hear their fortune for the New Year was told the same thing: on the 15th day of the new year the God of Fire would send a spirit dressed in red and riding a black horse to burn down the town. The maid pretended to be the fairy and came with a decree on the 13th day warning the Emperor of the impending disaster.
The Emperor turned to the wise old man and asked for his advise. The old man told him that the God of Fire love to eat tangyuan, those sweet, round glutinous rice balls stuffed with sweet sesame, peanut and red bean paste. The Emperor decreed that everyone in town should make tangyuan to worship the God of Fire and hang red lanterns outside their homes and light fireworks. This would both placate the God and deceive him into believing the town was already aflame.
That evening the whole town, including the young maid’s family, gathered outside the palace to gaze in wonder at the decorations and feast on the sweets. The maid and her family were reunited, the festival was a great success with the people and the Emperor hailed for saving them from the anger of the God of Fire. It became and annual celebration and since the little maid had cooked the best tangyuan both the dish and the festival ever after bore her name: Yuan Xiao.
Other than yaunxiao, tang yuen is also eaten during auspicious family celebrations and Winter solstice or “dong zhi” (冬至), which usually falls on the 21st or 22nd of December. The round and sticky dumpling balls symbolize family closeness and togetherness.
Sadly the website that allowed me to send Hui Chun, the traditional greetings for New Year’s, no longer operates so I will send to all those I love, and to those that they love this greeting for the New Year.
And it bears a wish I wish for us all: May All Your Wishes Come True.