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Spring Festival

 Laba

In Chinese, 'Laba' refers to the 8th day of the 12th lunar month, which is a long-standing traditional holiday of the Han nationality. People in Beijing always regard Laba as the sign that Spring Festival is just around the corner. On this day, each family will cook 'Laba Zhou', a thick, sweet porridge of glutinous rice, green beans, candied fruit, peanuts and lotus kernels.

It is said that the Buddha Sakyamuni begged alms with an earthen bowl and was given a variety of different foods to appease his hunger. To commemorate him, many kinds of rice and beans are used every year on the day of December 8th to cook the porridge and worship the Buddha. In addition to its religious use, Laba Zhou is also presented as a gift to relatives and friends. Then the porridge is feasted on by the family themselves. However, a family that is just getting over bereavement does not cook the Laba Zhou porridge.

The richness of the Laba Zhou depends on the affluence of the family. The common family cooks the porridge with motley beans and some dry fruit like small jujube or chestnut. After the porridge is cooked, brown sugar, white sugar and some sweet seasoning like hep or osmanthus (bloated sweet-scented osmanthus) is added. By contrast, if the family is wealthier, they will use sticky rice, seed of Job's tears, water caltrop kernel, the seed of Euryale, and lotus' meat to boil the porridge. The fine quality cooking ingredients make the Laba Zhou snow-white and transparent. The porridge is ladled into a teacup with a lid and saucer or a tailor-made porringer. The dish is topped with a confection made from preserved fruit (peach, apricot, apple and so on), litchi, longan, peach kernel, pine nut, incarnadine melon seeds, nuts, and fine slivers of dried tangerine peel. All these things are called the 'porridge fruits' and should be arranged in a design. The porridge is sometimes called 'Eight Treasure Congee'. All the beans, dry fruits, and nuts mixed together in the porridge is said to auger a bumper grain harvest in the coming year.

On this day, besides cooking the Laba Zhou, Beijingers also marinate garlic in rice vinegar. The garlic is then sealed in a crock and put in a hothouse. The marinated garlic is eaten with Jiaozi (Chinese Dumplings) during Spring Festival. It is said that garlic guards against the plague. Both Laba Zhou and marinated garlic brings the holiday spirit to the family reunion banquet.

 Jizao

In Chinese, 'Jizao' means that sacrifices are made to the 'kitchen god' on 'Xiaonian' (a festival on the 23rd or 24th of the 12th month of the lunar year). On this day, each family must offer sacrifices to the kitchen god.  

According to folklore, every year on December 23 the kitchen god ascends to the sky to report each family member's good or evil deeds to the Jade Emperor, who will decide to reward or punish the family.

People usually offer Guandong candy, clean water, beans for livestock feed, and stover (the latter three are materials for the saddle of the Jade Emperor to be raised to the sky) as sacrifices in front of the kitchen god's joss. Then they add a candlestick, a censer, and other sacrificial utensils. When the sacrifice begins, the Guandong candy should be at room temperature. According to legend the candy is to sweeten the mouth of the kitchen god to prevent him from speaking ill of the family to the Jade Emperor. The sacrificial fruits are extremely simple, but the ceremony is quite dignified, because people are so respectful of the kitchen god.

 Purchases for Spring Festival

Chinese people always treat the New Year's celebration as an important matter. Before the Spring Festival, they will fully prepare many things to eat, use, wear, play and sacrifice during the holiday including dried, green, fresh, and ripe food. The general term for all these things is the 'special purchases for the Spring Festival'. The gradual accumulation of New Year's goods is an important part of social life in Beijing.

The variety of purchases is so great in Beijing that no other places exceed it. All the items can be divided into five categories: food, attire, religious artifacts, toys, and decorations. Among the food items, the most common goods such as pork, mutton, chicken, and duck come from mainland China. Venison, wild chicken and frozen fish come from the area outside Shanhaiguan Pass from Guangdong Province. Water-milled rice cake, sweet rice cake, cold bamboo shoots, dried slices of tender bamboo shoots, and other items come from south China. Paper items, articles made of bamboo, and stoneware come from the south. Religious artifacts such as joss sticks, candles, and tinfoil, plus wood-engravings of the door-god and kitchen god, flowers for worshipping the Buddha, tutti-frutti, and other things are also absolutely necessary. In addition, toys and entertainment items like many kinds of firecrackers enhance the festival ambience.

 Housecleaning

During the middle ten days of the lunar December, each family thoroughly sweeps and cleans their house in preparation for the new year. They wipe the furniture, sweep the dusty cobwebs from the walls, and scour the windows. They put paper-cut decorations in the windows, whitewash the walls, and replace the old New Year pictures with new ones. Those who do not sweep their rooms are sneered at by their neighbors. The housecleaning is just for seeing the old out and welcoming in the new year, and to symbolically wipe out any bad spirit. If a family has any bad luck in the coming new year, it is said to be because the family did not sweep the house.

In addition to the house cleaning, everybody gets their hair cut and takes a bath. Women carefully wash their faces; men shave, and the elderly trim their beards. Rich families say the cleaning is for better living in a new year while the poor say the cleaning is just to get rid of unfortunate poverty and to welcome the new year. At any rate, this is a good custom to promote neatness and health.

 Spring Festival Aphorism & Paper-cut for Window Decoration

Before the Spring Festival, people decorate their home inside and out to give it a festive atmosphere. They hang door-god engravings on the gate, place a short Spring Festival aphorism or saying on the doorframe, hang paper-cuts on the lintel, and put gingeli stalks in front of the gate. The front door is pasted with tidings of good fortune and paper-cuts are applied to the windows. Scarlet lanterns are hung in the rooms and New Year pictures and Fu (which means felicity) are pasted on the walls.

Of all the preparation work for Spring Festival, decorating the windows with paper-cuts is the most followed folk custom. The paper-cut contains many scenes involving animals and plants, such as the pie with a plum blossom, the swallow with a peach and osier, the peacock with a peony, the lion with a ball of rolled colored silk, the rhinoceros with the moon, the lotus flower with a fish, the mandarin duck with water, and others.

Each family must exhibit Spring Festival aphorisms or sayings. This folk custom is so important that each joss and each gate should be adorned with one. Most of the couplets in front of the joss are words of respect and prayer; the sayings on a granary or barn are usually expressions of warm happiness and hope; the sayings on the front door represent the family's best hopes and wishes, so the family attaches much importance to it. The words may be lyrical or describe the beauty of natural scenery. The content is rich with one heartfelt remark after another. Thus, the atmosphere of the New Year celebration will be especially strong and deeply felt.

 Chuxi (New Year's Eve)

New Year's Eve is the high point of the Spring Festival, so all the auspicious celebrations are held on New Year's Eve. There are many old customs such as not using scissors or needlework and not saying certain inauspicious words. To begin, the whole family has a family reunion dinner and exchange best wishes, heartily enjoying the New Year's happiness.

After dinner, people spread gingeli stalks on the ground in the courtyard so people can walk on them and make noise. This is called 'Caisui (trample the old year)' in Chinese. In order to treasure the departing year, everybody stays up all night and enjoys different recreational activities, which is called in Chinese 'Shousui (stay up late or all night on New Year's Eve to see the Old Year out and the New Year in)'. Everybody sits together around the stove, chatting and laughing. The children always play and set off firecrackers while the elders sit in the room to play cards and mahjong. The continuous sound of firecrackers rends the sky at midnight, which in Chinese is called 'Cisui (celebrating the lunar New Year's Eve to bid farewell to the outgoing year)'. After the ritual announcement that the previous year has gone and the New Year approaches, the whole family says 'Happy New Year' to each other. Younger people must bow down to pay a New Year greeting to the elders; the elders give young children 'Yasui Qian (the money as the Lunar New Year gift)'. Finally, the whole family will eat the maigre stuffing dumplings which means 'the subrogation of the year' and 'the reunion of the family'. A coin has been placed inside one of the dumplings and whoever gets the dumpling containing the coin will be considered the luckiest person in the coming year. The dumpling eating marks the beginning of the New Year.

 Pay New Year's Call

From the first day to the fifth day of the lunar New Year is the time for visiting relatives and friends to pay the traditional New Year's call. Depending upon the social relations between people, the form of New Year's call may be roughly dived into four kinds:

Call on relatives: On the first day, a couple must go to the bridegroom's family and the next day to the bride's family. They must bring a gift for their parents and may travel a long way. Usually they have a meal or enjoy other entertainment.

Courtesy call to colleagues or friends: Generally, it is not suitable to have a long visit in this kind of situation. You can exchange a few words of conventional greetings and some pleasantries then say goodbye. After the New Year's greeting is accepted, the person visited should pay a return visit another day.

Benedictory visiting to special persons: If the family owes a debt of gratitude to another such as an attorney or a doctor, they should bring some gifts when they pay the New Year's call to express their thankfulness.

Informal dropping around like visiting neighbors: There are no formalities when visiting neighbors, only sitting a while in their home for a brief conversation.

If families cannot pay a New Year's call on time, they should make it up in the future. The time limit for paying a New Year's call may extend to the Lantern Festival on the15th of the first lunar month.

In recent times, new ways to pay the New Year's call have evolved such as a get-together to exchange greetings, a banquet, a party, or a tea party.  

 Powu

'Powu' in informal Chinese means the fifth day of the first lunar month, after which the shops re-open and business resumes. Generally speaking, on this day families eat dumplings, set off firecrackers, and have a whole family celebration, which represents eliminating misfortune from the coming New Year. After the sixth day, even though everyone's daily life gradually gets back to normal, a festive atmosphere still prevails.

 Lantern Festival

The 15th day of the first lunar month is the Lantern Festival and is another climactic activity during Spring Festival. Lantern Festival is the epilogue of the New Year's celebration. From the 13th day to the 17th day of the first lunar month, everyplace is decorated with lanterns and colorful streamers. People can not only eat rice glue balls, enjoy the decorative lanterns, guess lantern-riddles, and set off firecrackers but can also watch the traditional festivities like the lion dance. The whole family has a reunion and enjoys harmony and happiness. At this point, the New Year's celebration comes to an end.

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