5 Chinese Lunar New Year traditions we rarely observe, from not showering to letting the mess pile up
- Lunar New Year traditions such as giving envelopes with ‘lucky money’ are still observed, but other Chinese folk customs have been largely abandoned
- Among them are things like not showering or cleaning the house for a few days in case we wash and sweep away the coming year’s good luck, and staying at home
It is not the end of the world if that “new year, new me” fantasy did not become a reality at the start of 2023, nor is there a need to wait 365 days to do it over – the Lunar New Year is just around the corner.
Observed by numerous cultures around the world, the Lunar New Year – also known as the Chinese New Year and Spring Festival – falls on January 22 this year.
1. Making the Kitchen God happy
Chinese legend has it the Kitchen God, or Stove God, visits each household (just like Santa Claus) during the 12th month of the lunar year and reports back to the Jade Emperor in the sky on what everyone has been up to in the past year.
Unlike Santa Claus, who is not known for accepting monetary bribes, people would then welcome the Kitchen God back to their stove by burning incense and joss paper money.
These rituals are rarely seen these days, as many families have moved into modern houses that do not have traditional cooking stoves.
2. ‘Opening the year’ with a fire hazard
One well-known Chinese folk tale tells the story of a nian – a homonym for “year” in Mandarin – a mythical beast that used to rampage through villages every year, destroying houses and devouring villagers.
The villagers discovered that the nian was terrified of loud noises, so they poured gunpowder into dry bamboo sticks and threw them into fires. The resulting noise when they exploded would scare him off.
Later on, firecrackers were used to ward off evil spirits. A string of small firecrackers is set off at midnight to symbolise the ringing out of the old year, then three big firecrackers are lit to welcome the new year. The louder they are, the better prosperity will be for the next 12 months.
3. Putting personal hygiene on hold
According to legend, the first two days of the Lunar New Year are also the birthday of the God of Water, who gets offended when people wash their hair and clothes with water. Clearly, he is a lot to deal with – having a two-day birthday seems excessive, if not narcissistic.
Today, this tradition is largely ignored, especially in subtropical areas of the world like Hong Kong, where the air is often muggy and humid.
4. Staying home on the third day
The third day of the Lunar New Year is known as Scarlet Dog Day – which, sadly, has nothing to do with dressing up puppies like little lai see packets.
According to Chinese folklore the Scarlet Dog was the God of Anger, who roamed around on the third day of the new year. Those who ran into him were guaranteed to have bad luck.
As if that was not enough anti-dog propaganda, “scarlet dog” rhymes with “scarlet mouth”, which means to squabble with family and neighbours. As such, many would stay at home and not visit or receive others to avoid an accidental run-in with the Scarlet Dog.
While this is typically no longer done, we cannot think of a better winter pastime than sleeping in to avoid any more socialising.
5. Cleaning – and then not cleaning at all
It is time to hide the mops and brooms from our resident clean freaks at home, because we should not be cleaning the floor for the first few days of the new year.
Sweeping the floor, throwing water out and removing the rubbish from a home all traditionally signified the removal of the new year’s incoming good luck and wealth. As such, none of this would be done for a period of two to five days.
This might be why many families do their spring cleaning on the eve of the Lunar New Year as they bid farewell to the past year.
While this custom is rarely seen in cities today, it is still practised in some rural Chinese villages.