Why everything during the Chinese new year is in the color red, the significance of the Spring festival, and why it triggers the largest migration of people across the globe.

 

Chinese new year

Photo by Lauza Loistl

 

Long ago in ancient China, there was a tiny village that sat on the bank of a beautiful lake. Villagers enjoyed peaceful lives but dreaded the arrival of the new moon as the diminished moonlight awoke a horrible demon monster living deep in the lake. Afraid of the light, it came out once a year, wreaking havoc on the village, eating all its grain and taking all its children. This monster forced the village people to flee the village on this night every year.

One day, an old man visited the village. The time of the year had come again for the villagers to flee their village, and no one paid attention to this old man, nor realized that he did not leave the village like everyone else. When the villagers returned the following day, they found the old man unharmed and the village untouched. It turned out that the old man was, in fact, a wise man, who had figured out that the color red, loud noises, and fire were the things the monster was afraid of. From that year on, and for many years to come, the villagers celebrated the arrival of the new moon with bright lanterns, cheerful loud music, an abundance of red-colored decorations, and beautiful booming firecrackers, and the monster never returned again.

Over time, the Chinese New Year, as it came to be known, acquired new traditions and grew deeper in meaning. From a one-day celebration at the beginning, celebrations lasted 15 days, culminating in thousands of lit-up lanterns flying into the night sky, celebrating the arrival of long spring days as part of the Lantern Festival. This gave rise to Chinese New Year also being referred to as Spring Festival.

 

Chinese new year - Lantern Festival

Photo by Red Morley Hewitt

 

As Spring Festival grew very close to people’s hearts, the Chinese celebrated it in the only manner they saw appropriate – with the family. Leading up to Spring Festival, the entire family would meet in their parents’ home to prepare the home for the festivities. Red paper cuttings, often with the Chinese character for good luck or fortune (fú), are pasted all over the house, red lanterns are hung by the entrance, and well wishes for the family handwritten on pairs of red strips of paper, known as couplets, adorn the walls. Families then gather together on the eve of the Chinese New Year to enjoy each other’s company over a feast full of symbolic significance. What follows in the subsequent days is the visiting of the homes of families and friends, bearing well wishes with a pair of mandarin oranges and red packets containing some token money for the young ones.

The wheel of time turns, and generations come and go, but till this day, the magic of the festival endures. The tale of the wise man and the monster is still very much remembered and celebrated today and told as a fable to Chinese children all over the world. Once upon a time used to save the small village from the terrors of the monster, firecrackers, red decorations and loud, cheerful music now accompany families as they get together.

Over decades, young people from villages left to big cities in pursuance of their dreams, and once a year they return home on Spring Festival, triggering the biggest mass human migration on the planet. But not everyone manages to make it home for Spring Festival every year, as they have to remain behind to care for those in need and to hold the forts, sacrificing their time for those who need them. So you see, heroes and legends are being forged even today, and it is their story that will drive the tradition of Chinese New Year well into the future.

 


 

Last summer, we all had our own love affairs with Shanghai. ❤️ Some of us fell in love with her gastronomy, some of us fell in love with her endless energy, some of us fell in love with her rich culture and history, and some of us fell in love with her language. This is our love letter to Shanghai.

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