Athough the Chinese word, “nian” means “year,” the word comes from an ancient legend about a ferocious, horned monster that preyed on people, especially on new year’s eve. He would destroy crops, devour livestock, and kill people. Here’s a magnificent retelling of the story:
One Spring Festival Eve, villagers of Taohua (Peach Blooms) Village were preparing to flee, closing the doors and windows, some were pulling cows and sheep and the whole village was scared. An old beggar with a stick and a bag in his hands came to the village to beg, his grey hair and beard fluttered with the wind. But no one has time to care about a beggar except for an old woman who gave him something to eat and suggested that he in the mountains to get away from Nian.
The old beggar smiled and said: “Lady, if you let me stay one night in your house, I will get rid of Nian for you.” The old woman was surprised and looked at the old beggar carefully and found that the old beggar, with white hair and ruddy complexion, was hale and hearty and that there was something different about him. She still tried to convince him to flee to the mountain but the old beggar only smiled without reply. Having no alternative, the old woman ran away to the mountains leaving only the old beggar in the house.
On the stroke of midnight, the monster Nian rushed into the village, but immediately found that there was something different in the village. He quivered all over on seeing the red paper glued on the door of the old woman’s house. The house was well-illuminated by candlelight. Nian scowled at the house for a moment and howled fiercely to throw himself at the house. Approaching the door gate, he heard fireworks explosing. At that moment, the door was opened and the old beggar dressed in red came out and burst into laughter. Nian turned pale with fright and took flight with great haste.
The next day villagers came back home and were very surprised to find everything was in good condition. At that moment, the old woman suddenly recalled what the old beggar said and told the other villagers. Villagers rushed to the old woman’s house to see what had happened. There was red paper glued on the door, the fireworks in the yard were still exploding and all of the candles were alight. They then understood that the Nian was afraid of color red, the sounds of fireworks explosion and the light.
Wild with joy, villagers celebrated the coming of the New Year and the good fortune. They all dressed up with new clothes and hats, greeting with each other. The ways to get rid out the Nian spread from mouth to mouth and became prevalent quickly. From then on, every Spring Festival Eve, every family would glue red paper with couplets written on them, and stay up late or all night (Shousui) to wait for the New Year’s coming, lighting lanterns and setting fireworks (from Cultural China).
Chinese New Year has been celebrated for over 3,000 years and is the most important traditional holiday in China. Indeed, it is celebrated throughout the Chinese-speaking world with family gatherings, gift giving, and feasting. Because of the legend, firecrackers, the color red, and light are widely used during the holiday. Although the first day of the holiday is probably the most active, the celebrations actually last for 15 days, not ending until the Lantern Festival on the 15th day of the first lunar month.
Photo by Hendrik Van Den Berg