Mooncakes and dragon boats – traditional Chinese holidays

Nowadays China has the same calendar as western countries – the so-called Gregorian calendar. Besides the Gregorian calendar there are traditional Chinese holidays that are celebrated based on the Lunar calendar. Next to these two calendars, there is also an agricultural calendar ”nongli” in which the year is divided into 24 periods that last approx 15 days. All 24 periods are related to important agricultural stages.

Tomb-Sweeping Day

Traditional holidays in different cultures are usually connected to old beliefs and agricultural stages. This is the same for China. One of the important holidays is the ”pure brightness” festival aka ”qingming” that is celebrated on the Lunar calendar’s 3rd months’ 15th day. It’s also known as the Tomb-Sweeping Day. Worshiping the ancestors was a significant belief in the old days so it’s no wonder worshiping ancestors originated its own holiday. During the Tomb-Sweeping Day, families visit the tombs of their ancestors to clean the gravesites, pray to their ancestors and to make ritual offerings. The tradition has stayed strong as even Mao’s establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 hasn’t broken the holiday tradition but it’s still celebrated in China.

Dragon Boat Festival

During the fifth day of the fifth month on the Lunar calendar it’s time for the Dragon Boat Festival. Helsinki’s rowing competition that has been organized in Töölönlahti bay for the last 20 years is originated from Chinese cult that commemorates historical persons that have drowned in rivers and lakes. The most known historical person that has drowned was minister Qu Yuan (340–278 BC) of the ancient state of Chu. Qu Yuan was a victim of political betrayal and he committed suicide by drowning himself. This admired poet and minister was respected with the dragon boat rowing competition organized on the date of his death. The local people also dropped balls of sticky rice into the river so that the fish would eat the rice balls instead of Qu Yuan’s body. Nowadays the festival is celebrated in Central- and South-China with joyful Dragon Boat competitions. Qu Yuan is commemorated as a respected cultural hero.

Mid-Autumn Festival

The Mid-Autumn Festival ”zhongjiu” was a harvest festival that was celebrated during the 8th month’s 15th day of the Lunar calendar. The festival’s origins are in harvest rites but nowadays it’s celebrated more as a full moon gazing festival. During the Mid-Autumn Festival, everyone gathers outside to admire the huge full moon of autumn. Rich pastries, moon cakes, are traditionally eaten during the festival. Mooncakes are often filled with a full egg yolk to represent the full moon.

Spring Festival

The most important traditional holiday has been and still is the Spring Festival ”chunjie” aka the Chinese New Year Festival. The change of the year used to be celebrated with two full weeks, from the new moon until the full moon.

Chinese New Year was preceded by an interesting ritual. Picture of the Kitchen God that was hanged last year over the stove was taken off the wall. The picture was burned in the stove and that’s how the Kitchen God left to report for the Heavenly Jade Emperor. Before burning the picture the Kitchen’s God’s lips were painted with honey and rice cakes with wine were sacrificed. These preparations were made that the Kitchen God would report only good things to the Jade Emperor and because of the wine, the Kitchen God would forget all bad deeds. To represent the end of the Kitchen God’s reporting journey a new picture was hanged over the stove to observe the family for a year.

New Year Festival is a family holiday and all family members try to get together for a shared New Year’s meal. In Northern China dumplings that are prepared together are an essential part of the New Year’s meal. Dumplings are prepared by wrapping ground meat and vegetables into a thinly rolled piece of dough. Dumplings can be boiled, steamed or pan-fried. In the old days, it was believed that the ancestors would also join the New Year’s meal and a special fish meal was prepared for them.

Before New Year’s all debts and bonds had to be taken care of and the whole home had to be cleaned. During the New Year’s children were given New Year’s gifts. This is why Chinese New Year is almost like western Christmas and New Year mixed together.

Another New Year tradition was hanging ornaments of good luck and prosperity onto the doorways. In the countryside pictures of Door God’s were also hanged to protect the house from misfortune. Firecrackers were ignited to banish evil spirits. Hanging ornaments and Door God’s has been popular in the countryside and nowadays it’s getting more popular in the cities as well.

New Year’s celebrations ended to the first full moon of the new year – 15th day of the first month on the Lunar calendar. The end was celebrated with the Lantern Festival. Lanter Festival consisted of decorating the home with colorful paper- and silk lanterns and by eating special sticky rice dumplings.

Traditions during the modern days

China is changing fast and at the same time, traditional practices are changing. Chinese New Year has kept its position as the most important yearly holiday but as the country has gotten wealthier free time has increased and workers started to get annual leaves fifteen years ago. This means that Chinese New Year has lost its position as the only lengthy holiday during the year of modern Chinese. The establishment of the People’s Republic of China started new holidays, Labour Day during the 1st of May and National Day during the 1st of October as the most important ones.

Cities growing wealth has brought citizens new western holidays, like Valentines’ Day, Halloween and Christmas. These western holidays are mostly celebrated without knowing why they are celebrated in the first place. For example, few years ago before Christmas, Chinese television network interviewed young Beijing citizens who stated that they were celebrating Christmas. When they were asked why Christmas is celebrated, none of them knew the answer. Now also the Chinese government is encouraging citizens to spend longer holidays, in the hopes of increasing consumer demand. Chinese New Year is nowadays celebrated as a week-long holiday – it’s good to remember that most of East Asian countries are having a holiday during the Chinese New Year!

Celebrating the Chinese New Year Festival has retained its position as the most important holiday of the year in China but also in Korea, Vietnam and partly in Japan. Also in other East-Asian countries, Chinese New Year is an important holiday because of the large amount of Chinese minorities.