Spring Festival celebrates the importance of family

Three Minhang residents share how they will be celebrating Spring Festival.
Ti Gong

Wang Gengsheng at work

Wang Gengsheng, 49

Two days ahead of the start of the Yearof the Dog, Minhang resident Wang willhop on a bullet train to his hometown,a village outside of Hefei in Anhui Province,to celebrate Spring Festival withhis family. It’s been a tradition in thepast 14 years.

Although the train trip from Shanghai takes only three hours, Wang nevertells his parents the exact time of his arrival. Otherwise, they would start worrying about his safety and pace the floor waiting for him. For them, the 49-yea roldWang is the prodigal son returning home.

The most important festival of theyear in China is costly as well as celebratory.Wang said he spends about 20,000yuan (US$3,175) on special purchases forthe Chinese New Year.

“I need to cover every relative in the family — buying cigarettes and booze for the men, oranges and other fruit not readily available in our village, and candies for the kids.”

The gifts strain his finances. One year,Wang said, he spent 2,500 yuan on candies alone.

“I work for an eco-materials company in Shanghai, and I don’t make that much money,” he said. “My mother, who is in her 80s now, always tells me that it doesn’t matter how much I earn. The only important thing is that I’m herewith the family.”

While Wang works in the big city,his wife and two daughters remain in Hefei. Spring Festival is the longest time they can afford to spend together every year.

Women in the family are responsible for making the big meal on New Year’s Eve. Wang’s wife makes 30 kilograms of meatballs every year, which will stretch to the Qingming Festival in April. Chicken,fish and meat are must-haves on the tables. Animals need to be killed days before, to observe the tradition of not seeing blood or using knifes during the first few days of a new year.

Other traditions include decorating houses in symbols that portend good luck.

On Thursday, the family will spend the whole day preparing for the evening meal, but before they sit down together, they first pay homage to ancestors.

“We invite ancestors to eat before we can dine.” Wang said.

For that ceremony, the family lays out 12 to 14 dishes on the table, and places three chopsticks and bowls in each direction. The ritual lasts for 15 minutes.

One family member burns “hell money” for the ancestors in the yard outside, while the rest of the family stands beside the table without saying a word.

That done, the family reunion dinner begins. Every dish has a symbolic meaning. Boiled eggs, for example, signify wealth and noodles represent longevity.

After eating, families visit the homes of relatives, exchanging good wishes for the New Year.

“Basically every young man in the village has left to work in Shanghai,” Wang said. “Spring Festival is an ideal time to meet and catch up with what each of us is doing with our lives.”

After dinner, women in the family go to a Bodhisattva temple on the nearby mountain to pray. Flashlights illuminate the path. Bodhisattva is a Buddhist entity who looks after women.

“The children visit their grandparents’ houses, where they are given traditional red packets of money, but we don’t let them wander off for too long,” Wang said. “Superstition has it that dead people came back on the night, so it’s best to stay indoors.”

Wang’s village sees off the old year with firecrackers. That tradition is rooted in an old belief that a mythological monster called Nian descends the mountains to nearby villages and hunts for food at the end of year. A wise man determined that the monster is afraid of fire and the red color. Noisy firecrackers were said to scare it away.

Yan Haiping, 49 

Ti Gong

Yan Haiping (in light brown coat) poses with his family for a reunion photo during a Spring Festival get-together.

When Yan was young and material goods were scarce, he counted the days to Spring Festival with unconcealed excitement because it was the one time of the year when he could eat fish and meat.

“Normally, we ate only vegetables grown in our fields, so Spring Festival was special,” he said. “My father would make fried glutinous rice balls stuffed with meat, and pork-stuffed bean curd skin rolls. He knew I loved them. He still makes them every year.”

As a Minhang native now living in Xinzhuang Town, Yan’s memories of Spring Festival always involve snow.

“It used to snow heavily at that time of year,” he said. “We would bury firecrackers deep inside the snow to see if they would explode.”

Yan and childhood friends were fascinated by strips of firecrackers, which they unfurled and stuffed in their pockets.

“We threw them into the river or at the feet of passers-by to scare them,” he said.

With firecrackers now banned, Yan said he will go to bed after watching the annual Spring Festival Gala on China Central Television. There will be no ear-shattering fireworks to keep him awake.

“We can eat whatever dishes we want all year around now,” he said. “Spring Festival doesn’t seem quite so exciting or special anymore.”

Huang Xiang, 47

Ti Gong

Huang Xiang and his younger son.

Huang, the father of two sons, plans to take his family to a place outside downtown Shanghai this year, so they can light firecrackers to celebrate Spring Festival.

“Call it a tradition or superstition, but I want my boys to feel the excitement, which they can’t do anymore in Shanghai,” he said. “Setting off firecrackers reminds me of old times, and makes the inner child in me happy.”

Noisy fireworks used to be an important major part of holiday celebrations, but the practice is now banned because of safety and air pollution concerns.

Many people lament the passing. The Huang family tends to stick to family traditions when celebrating the

New Year.

“I will take my sons to my grandmother’s home for New Year’s Eve,” he said. “She is 92 now, so I cook for the four of us. Considering her age, I usually make soft foods like fish, braised pork and sticky rice.”

Though dining in the restaurant would be an easier option, Huang said a meal at home is much healthier and more intimate.

On the first day of the New Year, Huang takes his sons to Qibao Old Street to eat sweet dumplings and pray

in the temple. His older son, who is 14, thinks the practice is superstitious, but they haven’t broken from tradition.