Celebrating Spring Festival while it is 20 Degrees outside


As I mentioned in the last post, we have finally moved into our new apartment. Pam will write in another post about some of the details and craziness surrounding the move, especially if you take into account that we did it in the midst of the most important holiday of the year: Spring Festival (Ch. 春节) or (Chinese) New Year (Ch. 农历新年 ).

Although China now follows the Gregorian calendar (it started doing so officially in 1949, with the establishment of the Republic), most of its traditional festivals are still celebrated following the Chinese Lunar Calendar. That’s one of the reasons why, supposedly (I still need to look into this), Chinese New Year is also called the Spring Festival, since it usually marks the end of the winter and the beginning of the Spring. Personally, I would vote for a different name, something like “The End of Freezing-Winter Festival,” which  more accurately describes the weather in Beijing right now, but, as a foreigner, I don’t have any saying in this matter. It is freezing, with temperatures in the high 20’s/low 30’s during the day. We have had a hard time doing any sort of activities outside, since the kids complain about the cold (I would also love to complain, but being the father, I feel that it is my duty to be more stoic, even if my Mediterranean blood is also freezing!). As you can see in the picture below, we all have to be really bundled up to venture outside.


You can tell the holidays are approaching. You see people all over the city rolling suitcases on their way to catch a bus, train, plane, etc. that will take them home. Stores and restaurants are closing (the area surrounding Minzu University is starting to look like a ghost town). People are shopping like crazy, bringing home all sorts of delicious food and, especially, lots of booze. Finally, we’re starting to hear lots of fireworks, which will probably keep us up at night. I am afraid we will not have any particular insight on what a traditional New Year celebration is like for Beijingers, since we just got here and we don’t have that many Chinese friends yet. Most of the people we know right now are students, and they are going back home to celebrate the holiday with their families.

There are, though, many interesting traditions involving the celebration of New Year (you can read about it here or, like we did for the kids, you can also watch the special Chinese New Year episode of Kailan). I will just mention some of the most common and interesting ones:

  • Xiaonian 小年  or “Little New Year”: The 23rd day of the 12th lunar month, the kitchen god (Ch. Zaojun 竈君) ascends to Heaven and reports to the Celestial Bureaucracy the good (and bad!) deeds of the family. The Kitchen God has a long history in China and it is believed that he created fire. Our particular Kitchen God probably does not have much to report this year since, I believe, our new apartment had been empty for quite a while. I would suggest that he mention to the celestial bureaucrats that whoever lived here before could have cleaned up a little more and could have also painted the walls (that are incredibly dirty). He may have also known (he is a God after all) that a family of foreigners with three kids will be living in this house, so probably next year he will have more things to report…
  • The 24th day of the 12th month: This day people clean the house in order to get rid of all of the bad luck of the previous year and to get ready to welcome good luck for the new one. We were a little late in getting out cleaning started, but we did a lot of cleaning before the end of the lunar calendar. I hope we not only got rid of dirt (which I promise you, there was a lot of!), but also of all the bad luck from the previous year. The apartment now is squeaky clean (sort of…) and ready for all the good luck the New Year wants to throw our way…
  • New Year’s Eve (Chuxi 除夕): It takes place on the 30th day of the 12th month. It is actually happening as I write this. There are plenty of unrelenting fireworks, families gather and have a wonderful meal, there is lots of alcohol, and CCTV has a very impressive TV especial with lots of singing and dancing (way too much of both for my taste). Kids also receive red envelopes with money (Ch. 红包 ). I would post a video of what New Year celebrations looks like (and sounds like!) from our window, but my internet connection is so poor that it would take over 2 hours to upload a 45 second video, so you will have to take my word for it: it is quite a sight (and sound!).

There are many other celebrations after the New Year (I may post some of the traditions that happen during those days in a different post), but for now I think this may suffice. Oh, I forgot to mention that this is the year of the Snake(Ch.  蛇 shé)!

Happy Year of the Snake!

Happy Year of the Snake!


P.S. As Manel Olle points out in the materials that we use to teach the online course for UOC, Chinese Traditions and Festivals, there is an interesting tension between the traditional, agrarian based, lunar calendar, and the modern, contemporary, solar calendar. Traditional lunar calendar celebrations were closely tied to the vital (birth, death, marriage) and annual cycles (harvest, the seasons, etc.). New festivities, like National Day and Labor Day, are connected with the emergence of the Republic of China as a nation, and have a clear political, national-formation goals, and are recorded on the solar calendar.

P.P.S. Not to inflict any more academic reflections on you (that’s why I am writing these notes after the main post!), but watching the celebration of Chinese New Year reminded me of what James Watson wrote regarding Chinese rituals. In Death Ritual in Late Imperial and Modern Chin, he claims that what “is central to the creation and maintenance of a unified Chinese culture, it is the standardization of ritual. To be Chinese is to understand, and accept the view, that there is a correct way to perform rites associated with the life-cycle […] By following accepted ritual routines ordinary citizens participated in the process of cultural unification” (Watson 1988: 3).  So, watching people doing the very same things (cleaning their houses, getting ready for the big day, shooting fireworks, etc.) bring to light the notion that what really matters for cultural formation is not the meaning of rituals, but their performance (just like how most of us have no idea what is behind why we have Christmas trees, or why do we hunt for eggs in Easter, and yet we still celebrate those traditions): orthopraxy (to do) is more important than orthodoxy (to believe).


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