Singapore Diaries: Chinese New Year
Living in Singapore also means going through the year with completely different holidays than we know from the westernized world. One of the most important events is the Chinese New Year (春节 chun jie), also called the Spring Festival or Lunar New Year, which – as the name suggests – is a traditional Chinese holiday and among the most important.
Other than in the calendar year, the Chinese New Year turn does not always take place on the same day but is determined by the moon. The first day of the Chinese New Year begins on the new moon between 21 January and 20 February. In 2021, the first day of the Chinese New Year is on Friday, 12 February, which is the Year of the Ox.
According to tales and legends, the beginning of the Chinese New Year started with a mythical beast called the Nian (年獸 / 年兽), a creature that lives under the sea or in the mountains, that would eat villagers at night.
To protect themselves, people started to make noise and fire and colored everything in red and gold. The expulsion of the beast is also called Guònián, which means “The going of the year monster” (過年 / 过年), which is also the reason for the turn of the year.
Chinese New Year is a holiday for families celebrating a year full of hard work and subsequent rest. People get together with family and wish each other good luck and success in the coming year. The Lunar New Year is filled with symbols, traditions, and superstitions designed to influence the future. The foods associated with the festival are no different, with preparations usually beginning about two weeks before the actual date. On the 20th day of the eleventh month, people will clean their house with bamboo branches and decorate afterward with gold and red colors. Oranges and tangerines that altogether stand for happiness, joy, and prosperity are supposed to protect from the monster 年獸.
On the eve of the New Year, the family gathers for a rich feast that traditionally includes the “tossing”. During that, everyone gathers around a table with an empty bowl in the middle, around which are many ingredients, each of which stands for an auspicious symbol. Everyone is equipped with chopsticks, and a moderator announces the ingredients and their meaning, which are then put into the empty bowl. In the end, everything is mixed with the chopsticks and thrown up into the air, a total of seven times. With each tossing up, people shout “lo hei” loudly, and the rule is: the higher the toss, the more luck the new year will bring. Because of the ongoing pandemic, this year’s tossing is limited to a certain amount of people, and everyone is asked to wear a mask to prevent further spread in a usually very messy and fun activity.
People traditionally give each other presents during the New Year – usually with oranges, tangerines, and red envelopes filled with money. The amount of money is essential and contains as many eights and twos as possible because the numbers stand for luck and solidarity in Chinese. Oranges and tangerines are also bright, vibrant orange, a happy color associated with good fortune.
Chinese New Year in Singapore
This is our second Chinese New Year in Singapore, and it comes with a bank holiday, which means that most stores won’t open on the first day of Chinese New Year and close earlier on the Eve. Employers let their employees off earlier that day so that everyone has time to travel to their families to spend the night together.
Traditionally, Singapore is decorated in red and gold and with the respective animals of the year. This year, despite the coronavirus pandemic, the government did not let itself be deprived of this, with some colorful lanterns remaining unlit overnight to avoid crowds. Red lanterns and kumquat trees decorated with red ribbons can also be seen in many homes and building entrances.
Last year, we even got to see the many Lion Dance events that paraded through the streets of Singapore with loud drums and bells to drive away from the yearly monster. This year, unfortunately, no Lion Dance events took place, at least I haven’t witnessed any. But I was able to take a few pictures from this year’s decorations in China town, which are shining in bright Red and Gold.