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Lunar Year Festivals and Foods
Holidays and Celebrations
Summer Volume: 2016 Issue: 23(2)
The Chinese have many festivals, most probably began agriculturally, a few may have been religious. Among the common foods shared were eggs wishing for fertility; noodles for long life; ducks for marital fidelity; chickens for good marriages; lotus, watermelon, and other seeds for many children; and oranges, tangerines, and the pommelo for wealth, sticky sweet rice cakes for a sweet life; garlic chives for eternity, etc.
In China long ago, most holidays were celebrated for three to seven days. The first of the Lunar Year was a fifteen day celebration not known there as New Year. Now, it is a seven-day public holiday, the first three are legal holidays, the rest are not, but are for many, common days off. Many a boss does give the whole week off so his or her employees have enough time to return to their parents'' or ancestral village in time for the evening meal which is called: Reunion Dinner.
SPRING FESTIVAL is the common name for this New Year holiday in China. It is the first of the Chinese Lunar Calendar, and not on January 1st but on the first day of the Chinese Lunar Calendar. Shops and offices are closed, many food facilities often are not. For this Chinese New Year, most workers go ‘home’ the night before to be with their larger families for this Reunion Dinner one the eve of the last day of the 12th month of the lunar calendar. For many, this Dinner may be their best meal of the year, it certainly is the best they can afford. The week before, they clean, dust, and remove all dirt from their homes, pay all their debts, and make ready for the coming year.
For this first of the year celebration is known in China as Spring Festival. People don new clothes, shoot off fireworks after midnight, and often eat a very special New Year dessert called niangao. Probably made a day or more earlier, they wish each other and everyone a sweet and auspicious year. Also, a few days earlier, they took down the image of the Kitchen God from on or near their hearth, and with firecrackers said to sound like horses hooves, send him off to the Jade Emperor in Heaven. His lips are smeared with a sweet sticky substance to seal them and assure he will tell this ruler good things about the family from the past year. Until Lantern Festival which is fifteen days later, they eat and serve guests treats, many fried; some enjoy a vegetarian meal for good luck, or they eat sweetmeats including dumplings, some fried that look like gold and silver ingots.
Nianguo is a homonym, also known as a homophone, for a better year, a happy life, and prosperity. In long gone days, oil was very expensive, so many fried foods were made as symbols of prosperity. A whole carp was also common at this dinner, fish are yu in Chinese and this word sounds like money or prosperity so it is there to welcome the God of Wealth. There are some who only eat vegetarian foods at this meal, another way to share their wishes for a good year.
Millions of workers, students, and others not living at home, travel there. One report we read said that more than three hundred million did just that last year. Thus getting bus, train, or air reservations is no easy feat for this holiday. In 2015, this festival was from February 18th to the 24th; in 2016 it was from February 7 to 13, and in 2017 it will be from January 28 to Feb 2nd. Many a boss gives their workers not only time off, but also a red envelope. This bonus helps defray their travel expenses. Red envelopes are also given to children, the elderly, the infirm, and the needy.
At the Reunion Dinner, beside carp or another fish wishing for prosperity, chicken and/or lamb can be served as a wish for luck, noodles eaten as wishes for a long life, sweet rice balls for family harmony and a sweet year, dates for an early spring, and golden oranges and tangerines for prosperity, etc. The latter two are both received and given when visiting family and friends.
LANTERN FESTIVAL, called Yuan Xiao is celebrated on the 15th day of this first lunar month. Many make or purchase lanterns; and in the evening, parade them around lighting the way for ghosts to find their way home. Many make and eat rice-flour dumplings. No longer a public holiday, these festival foods, filled or not, are called tang yuan or yuan xiao and are featured for purchase at bakeries and restaurants. People eat them there or take them home and dip them into syrup as wishes for a sweet year. One chef told us they also symbolize peace and unity. On this day, many children visit their grandparents, some take part in a Lantern Day parade; and all wear their new clothes because they like to see and be seen.
QING MING FESTIVAL is also known as ''Tomb-sweeping Day.'' It is usually between April 2nd and 6th and many call it ''Clear Brightness Festival'' or ''Pure and Bright Festival'' and it occurs on or near the 5th of the month. Qing means pure and ming means bright, hence the name of this one-day legal holiday. On this day many families visit the graves of their ancestors, clean around them, and bring these relatives foods that they recall they liked. After they clean around the graves, many have a picnic there sharing these foods with their ancestors. For those that stay at home, they might set a table for their ancestors and put foods out for them they recall they loved. They are put out to share with them. Some have a shrine for these ancestors in their homes. it is in front of this that they put these foods, then they kow-tow to them three times; and then eat these foods ''with them'' in remembrance of good times they had together. Years before, this holiday used to be celebrated for three days, but no more. Now it is a one-day legal holiday; and the foods served vary home to home as the foods the ancestors loved varied.
COLD FOOD FESTIVAL is near the above holiday and some combine these two events. They might bring cold foods to their ancestral graves. Some eat them there while others make cold foods and eat them at home. An article about this festival was in this magazine and can be found in the Article Index. In the past, people did light firecrackers and burn paper money for the deceased; they even burned paper images of their favorite foods. Most no longer have this day off from work. Therefore, only old folks that have time to visit the graves and eat with their deceased relatives. Firecrackers are now banned in many places, so that is also no longer practiced.
MAY DAY is the next holiday on the Chinese Lunar calendar. It is celebrated on the Gregorian calendar on May 1st. Rare is the person who gets this day off, but all can celebrate watching military parades and the like. Families prepare cold foods, those their ancestors liked, such as a cold soup like the one at the end of this article.
DRAGON BOAT FESTIVAL is the next Lunar holiday. It comes is, for most, a day off from work, and it occurs early in June. It used to be a three-day public holiday but like many others. However, now it is just one day, and it is celebrated on the 5th day of the 5th lunar month. It is also called Double Fifth or Duanwu.
This festival honors Qu Yuan, a patriotic poet who was devastated when his Kingdom of Chu was captured during the Warring States period some two thousand years ago. On that day, he threw himself into the Miluo River holding on to a large stone wanting to drown, and he did. His body was never recovered even though many boats and many folk went out looking for him. They threw rice balls into the river to tempt him home but they did not succeed. Now foods used to tempt him and keep him from starving are triangular-shapes. People do hope that any fish will not devour him and eat these instead. So they throw in these zongzi to feed the fish, and to remember him. You can read more about these special treats and you can find a recipe for them on this magazine''s website at its recipe index.
People also drink wine with realgar; this is wine with the additive arsenic sulfide. It is meant to keep poisonous creatures away. Some spread this wine on their children’s faces and bodies to keep them from harm. They and others make, buy, or serve sticky-rice dumplings. They also eat salted duck eggs to remember this patriotic poet.
VICTORY DAY is on September 3rd. In 2015, it was the 70th anniversary of China’s victory over Japan. Not a legal holiday, so people do not get a day off. None the less, many do get time to go and see a military parade and any floats featured on this holiday. To our knowledge, there are no special foods to honor it.
QIAOGUE, also called QIXI, a holiday known by both names, is, by some, called Chinese Valentine’s Day. It is celebrated on the 7th day of the 7th Lunar month, and is the holiday about Zhi Nu, the weaver maiden whom some call ‘The Fairy from Heaven.'' She met and fell in love with Niu Lang, the ‘The Cow Hand;’ they know that he farmed and she wove, and that they wanted to marry; and they did. She went to earth to be with him and when the God of Heaven did finally hear this, they already had two children. She became very angry, and took action making her return to heaven. With a golden hairpin, she drew a line in the sky to separate these lovers forever. When the King of the Galaxy found out, he had other thoughts. One implemented was to let them get together one night every year. He gathered magpies, had them build a bridge of birds, and made this a reality.
You can see what he did on that night by looking at the very bright star next to the Milky Way; it is the Weaver Maiden. The three stars on her other side are her husband and the children. On this special night, all lovers celebrate with them. Young women make special pastries with nuts on or in them to share with their lovers. Young girls dress up, set out some tea on a table under a trellis with these special nut goodies, and they get seven threads and seven needles. the one who threads them fastest shows they are skilled in needlecraft, something that helps them snare lovers. They share the sweetmeats with them and they look up in the sky to see the bridge of magpies that helped these two get together. Those who believe can see them; can you? Incidentally, any goodies left over are enjoyed by the magpies who do thank the girls for them.
GHOST FESTIVAL is on the 15th day of 7th Lunar Month, and is a holiday with no day off from work. On this day, people light lanterns to help wandering ghosts find their way home. One can expect to see many lanterns helping them get home. There are no special foods, other than foods ghosts might love.
MID-AUTUMN FESTIVAL is celebrated on the 15th day of the 8th Lunar Month. Also known as the Moon Festival or zhongqiu, on this day, people eat moon cakes which can be round or square. Folks also enjoy round fruits on this day. In some regions such as in Suzhou, they eat a layered shortbread made with gingko and other nuts, or one filled with bean paste, shrimp, and/or fruits. In Guangzhou, the fillings might be coconut paste, lotus seed paste, fruits and nuts, even an egg symbolizing the moon. Some say longevity, good fortune, or happiness is a picture of a moon on this one day legal holiday. One legend for this holiday is about Chang E flying to the moon. This Autumnal Equinox day, set during the Tang Dynasty, might have started as an agricultural festival. Moon cakes are popular in various flavors if from different regions; and many are given to relatives and friends to wish them a long and happy life. Some, such as Mongolians, chase the moon, while Dong people steal vegetables or fruits on this day.
DOUBLE NINTH is celebrated on the 9th day of 9th month. Some carry a dogwood branch or a chrysanthemum branch on this day, and they often eat chrysanthemum cakes made with rice flour; they say this is to gain new heights; and they drink chrysanthemum wine. The cakes are made with chestnuts and with gingko and/or pine nuts, and with pomegranate seeds. These have been popular since Zhou Dynasty times. Some do purchase theirs, many elders make them, and on this day, hike into the mountains to increase their health and provide themselves with happiness.
SENDING WINTER CLOTHES is an ancient holiday when many did burn paper clothes to keep their ancestors warm during the winter. Some celebrate this on the 1st day of 10th lunar month. Not every one agrees on the date, nor on celebrating this holiday.
DONGZHI comes six weeks before Chinese New Year. When this celebration does, tang yuan is the festival food said to promote family unity and prosperity. It is a reminder that Chinese New Year is coming soon, and on this day and thereafter, preparations for it can begin.
OVERALL many holidays are remembered with seeds and candied fruits to offer guests; they are in trays with eight compartments; though years ago they were many with seven compartments; and they can be seen in museums. Called ‘togetherness trays,’ they can be used on any holiday or festival throughout the year. Markets and many stores sell items for them such as candied melon seeds wishing health or many offspring, peanuts for longevity, sugared longan fruit for many sons, pieces of sweetened coconut for togetherness, Chinese dates to attain ones goals, lotus seeds for fertility, etc. There are those who believe that eating these sweets will help make their wishes come true. Folks like to have these trays to share the many things symbolized in them. The sweets are most popularly available before Spring Festival when many stores feature them. Fewer holidays are celebrated as the years go on, fewer than used to be. At some of them, family members and friends do get together, go out for dinner and enjoy good Chinese food on any one or more of them. Do you?
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