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Chinese New Year
by [MIM]
Date: 1/29/2003

Chinese New Year is celebrated with gusto by the Chinese community in the Philippines. It is marked by large family gatherings that feature noisy firecrackers, the beating of drums, and the clash of cymbals. In the streets, performers outshine each other doing the lion dance, dragon dance, and parade on stilts.

The Chinese go by two calendars: the universally-used calendar and the traditional lunar calendar which reckons the days according to the moon’s waxing and waning. Although the Gregorian calendar was officially adopted in China in 1912, Chinese traditional feast days, like the New Year, still follow the lunar calendar. Chinese New Year coincides with the new moon and may occur anytime between January 21 and February 19.

It is said that long ago, the Chinese people thought that an evil spirit brought the long darkness and severe cold of winter. The evil spirit, which some referred to as Nian, killed many people. The Chinese decided on a plan to frighten Nian away.

When the moon was at its darkest, they gathered together. At midnight, they started burning bamboo which crackled and popped. The bright light and the staccato of sounds produced by the burning bamboo coupled with the beating of gongs and drums frightened Nian.

As he fled, people felt the warm air of spring displacing the biting cold of winter. They celebrated their triumph by dancing, singing, and sharing food. They congratulated each other with the words, “Quo Nian hao!” or “It is good to have Nian go!”

Until today, people still greet each other with these words. But Nian now refers to “year,” changing the greeting’s meaning to “It’s very good to have the old year go.” Others say, “Have a merry noche buena,” referring to the sumptuous family meal and firecrackers of New Year’s Eve, reminiscent of the triumph over the evil spirit of millennia past. In addition, they may add a hearty “Kong hee hat chay” or “Kong ho sun hee,” which means “May your life be prosperous.” Children greet their grandparents in expectation of aguinaldos, usually money put in red envelopes called hungpao.

The Chinese name their years after the animals of the Chinese zodiac. This practice is, again, based on a legend and can actually be traced to the influence of Buddhism on Chinese culture.

According to Chinese folklore, twelve animals came to worship at the birth of Buddha Siddharta Gautama. Since then the Chinese have accounted for time according to the order of their arrival. The twelve-year cycle, therefore, starts with the year of the rat, the first animal to greet Buddha. It is followed by the year of the ox, the tiger, the hare, the dragon, the serpent, the horse, the sheep, the monkey, the rooster, the dog, and the pig. The next cycle begins with another year of the rat.

The Chinese also believe in ancestor worship. One of their traditional holidays is called Qingming, the day to remember the dead. It usually falls within the first week of April. The Chinese community in the Philippines, keeping true to its tradition, also pays homage to dead ancestors. They do so on the day most Filipinos mark the feast of the dead, November 1.

The Chinese in the Philippines have kept many of their traditions as a cultural minority group in the country, but they have also increasingly absorbed many dominant customs of the multicultural Filipino nation. It is no wonder that they celebrate New Year twice, according to the Gregorian and lunar calendars, as well as join the whole country in other holidays like Christmas, Easter, and even All Saints’ Day.

Source: Filway’s Philippine Almanac, Centennial ed. (1998). p.50.

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