Feast of the New Year


Tzu was tired, but so excited she couldn’t sit still! For weeks she had been helping her mother clean, cook, and shop. Now at last it was the evening of the New Year.

Tomorrow was the gayest, most important of all Chinese festivals. Then Tzu would count herself one year older, even though it was not her true birthday. Her mother and father, her little brother, and her grandparents would too. And so would everyone else!

“Our home is so pretty!” she said to her mother as she looked at all the paper decorations of red and gold, the colors of luck and prosperity.

For weeks all the shops had been crowded with people buying food and clothing. But tonight they would all be closed so everyone could be at home. Debts had been paid and collected and the books balanced.

Father would be given an extra month’s salary to mark the thirteen-month lunar year. The Chinese calendar, developed more than 4,000 years ago, divides the year into twelve months of twenty-nine to thirty days. Since there are days left over, every thirty months there is an extra month. That is why the Chinese New Year falls anywhere between January 21 and February 21.

The years are grouped into twelve-year cycles and each year is named after an animal: the dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, chicken, dog, pig, rat, ox, tiger, and rabbit. The nature of an animal is believed to affect the events of the year and the people born during it.

Tzu wondered if her father had performed a special service during the past year. If so, he might bring home a red and gold packet of “lucky money,” with pretty pictures of peach and pine trees on it that symbolize a long life.

Tzu would put on the beautiful new dress her mother had made for her and help her brother put on his new suit. Both of them also had new shoes.

Quietly the family would eat the last meal of the old year together and stay up way past their usual bedtime to say good-bye to the old year and to welcome the new. Just before midnight the doors of their home would be locked and sealed with the good luck papers.

“Now remember, little brother,” Tzu whispered. “At midnight, we must kowtow (make low bows) and wish our father and mother new happiness for the New Year!”

He nodded happily.

Early the next morning the seals on the door would be broken, and the family would stay home to quietly honor their ancestors.

“We must not argue tomorrow—not even one cross word,” Tzu reminded him.

Again he nodded.

The celebrations lasted several days. On the second festival day, Tzu’s family would go out to visit and take gifts of food to relatives, the old honored ones first. To everyone they met, they would give the New Year’s greeting, “I wish that you may have joy!”

“What will you say if someone says that to you?” Tzu asked little brother.

“May joy be with you,” he answered.

“Good!” She patted his dark, shiny hair.

Tzu loved the third festival day best of all because then the children went in groups from house to house singing. And after their songs they were given rice cakes or oranges.

“But when do we get the lanterns, Tzu?” little brother asked, tugging at her.

“That, too, is on the third day,” Tzu replied, holding up three fingers to show him.

The feast of the lanterns was a wonderful day! People tried to see who could have the prettiest lanterns hanging in their gardens, on porches, in the streets, and in temples. Everywhere lanterns twinkled in lovely shapes, sizes, and colors.

The great parade was also held on the third day. People would come out of their homes carrying lighted lanterns and join the parade, led by a huge dragon that symbolized goodness and strength. The dragon was made of bamboo covered with silk or paper and painted to look fierce and fiery.

“Men walk inside it, little brother,” Tzu said, “carrying it on their shoulders. If you look, you can see their feet.”

But all little brother could imagine was the dragon moving along the streets, weaving in and out, its head turning, its mouth opening and closing over terrible teeth. Then firecrackers exploded and the people laughed and shouted with joy.

Tzu knew that the dragon might be scary to her brother, so she gave him a big hug to let him know that she understood. “I’ll hold your hand,” she promised. Little brother smiled bravely and answered, “And I’ll hold your hand, too, then neither of us will be frightened.”

[illustrations] Illustrated by Dick Brown