The Chinese New Year (and the Chinese Catholic)        (E.J.Tyler)

   In considering the New Year observances of any particular culture one recalls that the New Year has been celebrated in all parts of the world and from antiquity with special festivities. But the date has varied greatly. For instance, the New Year of the ancient Egyptians and Persians began with the autumnal equinox in September. The Jews and the Babylonians made it begin with the spring equinox. The ancient Greeks celebrated it at the winter solstice (in December) and at a later period on June 21.

  In Rome it was celebrated on December 21 until the introduction of the Julian calender (46 B.C.), which made the date January 1. The Romans observed this day (January 1) as a general holiday, while paying visits and exchanging gifts. The gifts were known as strenae (a new year’s present given for the sake of the omen), and so great were the imperial strenae that they ultimately became the subject of legislation. The early Christians were often directed by their pastors not to take part in either the new year’s revels or the Saturnalia of December, and many of the early Fathers chose to order that New Year’s Day be kept as a fast. In many parts of the early Church March 25 was observed by Christians as New Year’s Day. England came to observe December 25 as New Year’s Day before the Norman Conquest, later making January 18 the official date, and later again reinstating March 25 as the day. When Captain Cook was born this date for New Year’s Day (March 25) was still in place in England.

  In 1582 Pope Gregory XIII issued his bull correcting the error that had accumulated in the Julian calender, and his calender was at once adopted by Spain, Portugal, France and parts of Italy. Protestant countries were slower to accept it, the Orthodox slower still. It was introduced into Scotland in 1600, into the greater part of Germany towards the end of the 17th century, and into England in 1752 when the mob went about crying ‘Give us back our eleven days!’ believing that their lives had suddenly been shortened by that period due to this legislative decision. Russia did not accept the Gregorian calendar till after the 1917 Revolution. In England the custom of giving New Year’s gifts continued down to the time of Charles II, and was then gradually superseded by the custom of giving Christmas presents.

 1. The traditional Chinese religious year.

  In traditional China the dates of religious significance were made known through a calendar issued by the Bureau of Astronomy in the Ministry of Rites, by imperial authority. This calendar combined lunar and solar calculations, but for the religious year the lunar were more important. The waxing and waning of the moon was the most conspicuous indicator of change in the heavens, and so the new and full moons formed focal points in the progress of time. The calendar had the character of an almanac, spelling out behaviours suitable, and indeed essential, for every season. Eventually it developed into a handbook containing medical lore, moral guidance, and techniques for prognosis and divination. The issuing of the imperial calendar was an act of religious import and was taken as evidence of the divine mandate possessed by the ruling dynasty. Only a ruler with such a divine commission could reveal the times and influences according to which all men must govern their lives. Incidentally, I have read that it is especially in Taiwan that the traditions of the Chinese religious year are most fully preserved amidst the changes of modernisation.

  A seven day week with its recurring day of rest was scarcely known in China prior to the impact of the West, but because of the festivals Chinese life did have its holidays. No one was obliged to keep them as holidays - with one important exception. That was the New Year, a festal holiday no one could ignore.

 Subsequent to the celebration of the great New Year festival, most months of the Chinese year contain a festival of at least some importance. The second month of the year includes sacrifices to T’u-ti-kung and the giving of a feast to employees. In spring, at the beginning of the third month, there is the festival of Ch’ing-ming Chieh dedicated to the ancestors. The graves are visited and solemn food offerings are made. The virtue of the ancestors is remembered, which virtue abides forever among the descendants. In the fourth month there is the washing of the temple Buddha, whose birthday it is said to be. The Dragon Boat or dumpling festival characterises the fifth month. In the sixth there are the observances connected with the completion of the half year. The Ghost ceremonies distinguish the seventh month, during which month bereaved spirits, damned souls and wandering ghosts are said to be allowed to roam the world. In the eighth month there is the moon cake or harvest festival, very much for children. The ninth and tenth month are not months of much religious celebration, being occasions especially for picnics, although there are a few observances. The eleventh month features the ‘winter festival’ (marking the solstice late in December) with its family gatherings to sacrifice to ancestors. During this month the Emperor sacrificed at the altar of heaven and honours were paid to ancestors. Then finally during the twelfth month preparatory observances began for the New Year.

2. The Chinese New Year

  But by far the most protracted, the busiest, and the most important of the annual festivals throughout countries and communities affected by Chinese civilisation  is that of the New Year. The Chinese New Year is a period of religious and civic significance and celebration, beginning during the twelfth month of the previous year and continuing through to the full moon of the first month. In former times all business came to a virtual standstill during most of this period; nowadays the length of the holiday has been greatly reduced, but many traditional practices are coninued. Nowadays the main celebrations occur during the first week including and following New Year’s Eve (Kuo-nien, ‘the passing of the old year’, or the last day of the year). New Year’s Day itself falls on the day of the new moon following the end of the previous twelve month period.

  While most years consist of a twelve month cycle, being a lunar calendar every several years an additional or intercalary month has to be added. Generally the first new moon of the New Year does not occur earlier than January 21, nor later than February 19. And so the Chinese New Year Day varies from year to year just as Easter does for the Christian world. For instance, in the year 2000 the new moon (and therefore New Year’s Day) occurred on February 5, and festivities  continued on till the full moon appeared - that year on February 15.

 3. Prior to New Year’s Eve

 Traditionally for about ten days before the New Year business was not transacted. Then a few days before New Year’s Eve, Tsao-chun (the Kitchen God, or ‘lord of the cooking stove’, or the Spirit of the Hearth) was supposed to lead the various deities assigned to various duties to the court of the King of Heaven (Yu-huang Shang-ti) who is the ruler of the pantheon of heaven. There he would make an annual report on the family household to the Heavenly King. Tsao-chun, the Kitchen God is in effect the spirit overseer of the family. His report influenced the longevity of each family member as recorded in the heavenly registers. Prior to his departure those who pray offered a sweet cake to him by smearing his mouth (as depicted at the household shrine) so that he will have only sweet things to report about the family. The paper icon of Tsao-chun, found above each stove, is burnt, the smoke conveying the report directly to heaven. Once the deity has left for the court of heaven the house undergoes a thorough cleaning in preparation for the arrival soon of heavenly good fortune for the coming new year. There was no cleaning of the house on New Year’s Day for fear of cleaning out as well the good fortune brought back from Heaven. I suppose the cultural point to be noted in this observance was the looking to Heaven for blessings for the coming year.

4. New Year’s Eve

On New Year’s Eve, the last day of the passing year, all family members come from afar to the parents’ house for a great family reunion dinner, usually in the evening. Before the dinner begins some families might redecorate the family shrine and present offerings of chicken, or roast port, fruits, flowers and paper money to the ancestors. It is a ceremony of remembrance and of drawing the ancestral members down into the happy occasion of the New Year’s Eve reunion, and of extending to them the filial piety which should pervade the gathering. It is a sharing of good things with the ancestors, and might take from 30 minutes to an hour. (Incidentally, the main festivals for ancestors are at other times during the year, especially the Ch’ing-ming Chieh during the third month). To be noted here is the respect shown for ancestors.

  Then follows the family dinner manifesting and reinforcing the great Chinese value of family life and children, a dinner of thanksgiving for the year passed. Called ‘surrounding the stove’, it can be likened to the traditional family Christmas dinner in our culture. The Catholic Chinese family would then go to the New Year’s Eve Mass.  

   New Year’s Eve is charged with expectation. In some places at midnight the old people would look at the almanac to see from what direction the god of prosperity would be coming. They would then pray in that direction. This god is supposed to bring them good fortune for the coming year, I suppose in response to the good report on the family conveyed to the court of Heaven by the Kitchen God. To welcome the new year another traditional custom observed by some older folk  was to hang banners on the door and on the gateposts, portraying auspicious words and good wishes and marked with lucky red paper (red is the colour of good fortune or good luck). Again, it expresses the Chinese expectation of blessings during the new year.

  By ancient custom too, on New Year’s Eve people attended plays held in front of a temple. I know a Vietnamese convert to Catholicism who, after attending with her Catholic family the New Year’s Eve Vietnamese Mass which follows the family dinner, visits a relative and then goes to watch the plays at the Buddhist temple. Firecrackers also often welcome the New Year. New Year’s Eve is (as with us: witness our own New Year’s Eve celebrations) a time of celebration and expectation in both a civic and a religious sense.

 5.  New Year’s Day

 Traditionally, New Year’s Day is spent at home with one’s immediate family. Chinese children would serve the elders a cup of Chinese tea wishing them long life and good things, and in turn receive a lucky red packet (Ang Pow) containing money wishing them congratulations and good fortune. Then during the first few days of the new year family members visit relatives, friends and neighbours, exchanging red packets containing gifts of money and wishing one another good fortune in the future.

6. The New Year festal period (especially the first week)

  During the New Year festival all are expected to avoid saying bad things (such as references to death and bad luck), rather one should speak only about good things. And while it is expected that during the closing days of the previous year outstanding debts will be met and honoured, nevertheless, on New Year’s Day and its immediate aftermath some debts, and some part of debts are waived as an expression of good wishes.

  Above all, the New Year is seen as a new beginning, a time of optimism and hope. People are greeted wishing them prosperity. It is the time for new year resolutions, of planning for the future and of diligence in the implementation of plans. The year 2000 was the year of the Dragon, and was understood therefore to be a particularly auspicious year for the world. Each Chinese year is symbolised by an animal, with twelve years of animals proceeding in rotation and then starting again. There is the year of the rat, the year of the cow, the tiger, the rabbit (1999), the dragon (2000), the snake (2001), the horse, the goat, the monkey, the cock, the dog and the pig. Any year of the Dragon is a year of bright prognosis, a year of expected blessings such as the birth of children, or business success, and so on.  For the Chinese person imbued with his culture, this year is to be one of blessings and of special optimism. The next year of the Dragon to come around will be, of course, in 2013.

 7.  The significance of the Chinese New Year

 In China, as elsewhere, some observances have become more or less drained of religious content and their original significance is forgotten or obscured by later rationalisations by all but scholars. One well educated Chinese-Malaysian woman whom I consulted had no idea of the significance of the December ‘winter festival’. Certainly some festivals, most notably the New Year and the Ghost festival of the seventh month, are outstanding and common to all Chinese communities. We may say in summary that in the religious year as a whole a few themes are conspicuous: concern for the unity of the family, including filiality to the ancestors and protection of the children; desire for longevity; hopes for blessings in general; and fear of resentful ghosts and attempts to propitiate them.

For the Catholic Chinese (in common with the typical Chinese family), the family reunion is especially important. Family life and unity is especially prized in Chinese culture, with a special emphasis on honour accorded to parents and elders. The family is the predominant social unit in traditional Chinese culture and society. Family members come from afar to rejoin the whole family for the New Year.

  Allied to this feature of the New Year is the characteristic Chinese respect for and remembrance of one’s ancestry. In traditional non-Catholic Chinese society ancestor-worship is a dominant social factor, and the dead are hardly less members of the family than the living. The ambiguity of Catholics engaged in the traditional cult of ancestors was long an issue since the controversy surrounding the missionary work of Matteo Ricci. But I understand that early in his pontificate Pius XII lifted the ban and enabled Catholics to engage in ceremonies of ancestor respect. (I have not seen the relevant document).  I am informed that in the late 1960s in order to counteract the rampages of the Cultural Revolution (the aim of which was to destroy much of Chinese tradition), Cardinal Paul Yu, while in exile in Taiwan, devised the brief ceremony of Gi Tien, Ching Tsu (Worship God, Respect the ancestors). As an expression of Chinese religious culture, it is now widely used even by non-Catholics. For Catholics it is often used during the New Year’s Day Mass, usually after Holy Communion. The celebrant may, for instance, display a tablet depicting a triangle as a symbol of the Trinity (the Gi Tien component, ‘worship God’), and under the triangle would be a symbol of or word for the ancestors (Ching Tsu, ‘respect ancestors’). Then would follow the brief ceremony with its prayers expressing worship of God (the Heavenly King) and respect for the ancestors. (I am not aware that this ceremony is readily available in English translation, and I have not studied it myself). Following the ceremony, Mass would conclude with the Communion Prayer and final blessing. Alternatively, the ceremony could follow after Mass is over.

  Of course nowadays here in Australia with the pressure of western modernisation and with the Chinese New Year’s Eve and Day falling on ordinary working days, many of the observances are curtailed and even omitted. Typically the Chinese Catholic family in Australia will clean the house for New Year’s Eve, have a great family dinner in the evening and go to the evening Mass for New Year’s Eve (just as we do at Christmas). After the evening Mass the family may visit a relative, but of course they must get back to bed because of work and school the next day. If the New Year’s Eve falls on a weekend, more of a celebration will be possible. No cleaning is done on New Year’s Day and on that day all that is worn is new and neat. There is a special cake and goodies, and on the following days they go and visit friends and relatives, the children receiving money in the Ang Pow red packet as a wish for prosperity and a good year.

   In general the celebration of New Year’s Day is similar to our Christmas day. For the Catholic it is a day for Mass (perhaps the night before, or the Sunday before), and then above all of family reunion, of gift-giving, of filial respect shown by the young to parents and elders, of good wishes shown by elders to the young. Good wishes and prosperity for the new year are expressed to all comers, one remembers one’s forebears, and perhaps waives some debts. It is a day of optimism and expectation with respect to the new year now beginning, of new resolutions and fresh planning. At the centre of all is the New Year’s Day Mass.

Some thoughts on a Catholic celebration of the Chinese New Year Day.

1.   The New Year festival expresses central values of Chinese culture, and to the young in particular it instils filial respect to parents and elders. We could say that the Catholic and Christian Chinese are supported by their culture in their observance of the Fourth Commandment. Parents and the elderly are reminded by the New Year of the love they should have for their children and of the special respect and prayer they ought ever maintain for their ancestors.

2.  Especially is the Chinese New Year about family unity and interdependence. One thinks, then, of the Catholic the ideal of living the Christian life of love for one another above all in the family. The home and the family is called to be a true centre of Christian love radiating its witness to and impact on others in society and the Church. The family unit is traditionally the mainstay of Chinese society, and children, indeed very many children, were highly prized. Thinking of all this it is obvious that the current Chinese government attack on the family and children is exceedingly un-Chinese. Catholic Chinese could be warmly encouraged to maintain this great strength of their traditional culture, while shaping it in the light of the Church’s teaching. The Chinese Catholic surely has a great contribution to make here in Australia in bearing witness to the divine plan for marriage and the family, in a country so marked by family conflict, by the separation among the generations, and by profound family breakdown. The Holy Family could be held up to them on New Year’s Day as especially relevant to them in a secularised, though nominally Christian culture.

Connected with this, one also thinks of the family of the Church, God’s family, and the loyalty and responsibility due to it. The Fourth Commandment obviously relates not only to one’s parents by blood, but to the Church our mother and to the Church’s pastors (especially the chief pastor of the See of Rome) who teach and guide in the name of Christ and his Church. To them we owe filial respect and religious obedience, which if given ensures the unity of the Church.

3.      While the Chinese look to the ancestors with veneration and gratitude, they could be reminded that of course God is the origin of all blessings, God who has bestowed blessings by means of parents and the entire line of one’s ancestry. The central motto is, worship God and respect the ancestors.
      The traditional veneration for ancestors (which has a place in the New Year celebrations) could also be used to reinforce a sense of veneration for the Church’s Tradition by means of which we have received so much. St Paul refers to Abraham as our father in the faith.

4.   The very newness of the new year is a strong theme of the Chinese New Year. It is a time of optimism and opportunity. Blessings and good things are hoped for from Heaven and expressed to others. It is a time to plan for the future, and success depends in large measure on good planning and diligence in execution. While the value of temporal prosperity and success can be readily admitted, however the Christian uses the treasures of this life to store up lasting treasures in heaven. He does this above all by giving of his means rather than hoarding them.