As Lunar New Year approaches, people here in Taiwan are gradually starting to prepare for a celebration. You might feel a bit out of place, and maybe even a bit disoriented as a visitor. But worry not! This blogpost is here to make your lunar new year!
In case you missed it in the title, yes, cultures that were once influenced by pre-modern China, e.g. Japan, Korea, Vietnam, China nowadays, etc. basically what you might call “East Asia” or “the Sinosphere” celebrate 2 different New Year’s -- a Western one, based on the solar calendar, and a traditional one based on the ancient Chinese lunar calendar. Here in Taiwan, the Lunar New Year is considered to be more traditional, and more important. Plus, people usually get a long holiday (at least 5 days!). During the Lunar New Year, even the newspaper and garbagemen don’t work, so if you’re a resident here, plan your garbage schedule ahead of time.
During the last month, and before the last day of the old year (according to the lunar calendar, of course), people in Taiwan conduct their "annual cleaning" -- a very thorough purification that scours, cleans, and polishes even the tiniest corner of the house.
The 24th day of the last month of the year is the start of our gods' "New Year’s Holiday", when they all leave their positions in the mortal world, and return to heaven for vacation. (Yes, even the gods have holidays. That’s how wonderful Lunar New Year is.) On this day, we "see off" the gods by conducting the 拜拜 (pronounced "bai-bai") ritual with sweet offerings to show our appreciation for all their blessing and governance during the past year.
Just like how people in the West try their best to go home and enjoy Christmas with their families and loved ones (no matter how much they may hate it), people here in Taiwan have our reunion dinner on the last day of the old lunar year. During the reunion dinner, we enjoy foods that symbolize great fortune, prosperity and longevity. Most of this symbolism stems from homonymic puns between the Mandarin name of the ingredients (or their shape) and some Chinese blessings for the upcoming year. You can find some of the common ones below:
Fish: Plenty and abundance
Tangerine: Good fortune
Dumplings: Prosperity (show me the money!!!)
Mustard Greens: Longevity
Crabs: Balance and Harmony
Chinese Mochi: Promotion and Evolution
Apples: Peace and Safety
The reunion dinner is also the occasion where the world-renowned “red envelopes” are given out to youngsters as blessings for the next year. These envelopes full of pocket money are also given by grown-ups to their parents in order to show their gratitude for giving them life, and raising them up.
After the reunion dinner, families play games, watch TV, or do anything else to spend some quality time with one another until after the clock strikes 12. Traditionally, we believe that by going to bed late on the last day of the old year, we can “preserve” our parents’ longevity. The later you fall asleep, the longer you’ll be able to enjoy your parents’ presence in this lifetime.
If you happen to be in Taiwan on this day, just imagine it to be like Christmas Eve in Western countries -- most stores and restaurants will be closed by late afternoon, so basically there will be nothing to eat (or to do at all) during the evening. In order to dodge this cold bullet, I suggest that you get your food ready before the afternoon so you don’t starve throughout the night. And if you’re ever in need of food during New Year’s Eve, convenient stores like 7-11, Familymart, etc., and 24H fast food restaurants are your best bet (their stock and selection might be a bit limited though).
So that’s the secret! The history, culture, and survival guide to navigating the Lunar New Year in Taiwan. There’s a lot of fun to be had, and a lot of new things to see, so enjoy!
On the first day of the new year, people walk around the neighbor and visit friends to greet and send good wishes. It is also popular for people to visit temples on the first day, so avoid going there if you dislike crowds.
Since wives are traditionally considered as a member of the husbands’ family rather than their original families’, married daughters usually spend the new year’s eve and the first day of the new year with the husbands’ family. On the second day of the new year, married daughters take her husbands and kids (if applicable) back to her original family so the daughters’ families can have their reunion (albeit patriarchal) as well. Avoid taking inter-city busses on this day as the highways will surely be jammed with home-coming daughters and their new families.
After the two days of hustle and bustle, the third day of the new year is all about chilling and sleeping in, before we welcome the return of the gods on the forth day, and going back to work ourselves on the fifth day. One thing worth noticing is that the worshiping ritual of farewell should be held as early as possible and the welcome one late in the afternoon, so the god can have more vacation time. (Sounds like an employee-friendly work place, isn't it?)