Chinese New Year

恭禧发财 – Happy Chinese New Year.

Today marks the start of the Chinese New Year celebrations of the Year or the Sheep (or the Goat if you prefer).

The Chinese year is based on lunar months (ie each month is 28 days because that’s how long it takes the moon to go round the earth) and so New Year’s Day in China falls on a different date each year. There are usually 12, but sometimes 13 months in a Chinese year. The first day of Chinese New Year will always be between 21st January and 21st February, and it coincides with the new moon.

New Year celebrations begin a couple of days beforehand, when people clean their houses from top to bottom to sweep away the old year. They never clear during the first two days of the New Year as this may sweep away the good luck that the New Year brings.

Family and food are both important in China, and on New Year’s Eve families get together for a special meal which includes fish and Chinese dumplings, both of which represent wealth.

Families decorate their houses in red (for luck) and gold (for wealth). Some popular decorations are lanterns, firecrackers and spring couplets. Firecrackers are also let off outside because the banging noise is believed to scare away the dragon Nian. Spring couplets are decorations which are placed either side of doorways. They are made of red paper, and have good wishes for the new year written in black ink. Each one usually has 4 Chinese characters on so that the couplet has 8 characters – 8 being a lucky number in China.

Children are given money in red envelopes, and tradition says that this will keep them healthy and give them a long life.

The public holiday lasts for the first three days, but the celebrations actually end 15 days later (coinciding with the full moon) with the Lantern Festival.

Related posts: The Chinese Zodiac     The Story of the Dragon Nian    The Lantern Festival

What are the origins of Valentine’s Day?

heartToday is Valentine’s Day so I thought it was a good opportunity to explore the origins of this day.

Why do we celebrate Valentine’s Day on the 14th February?

There have been several St Valentine’s throughout history, but the most likely one to be commemorated was a Roman priest who is purported to have conducted secret marriage ceremonies for soldiers. At the time soldiers were forbidden to marry because it was believed domestic bliss would reduce their efficiency as soldiers.

When he was found out, he was imprisoned.  The story goes that he fell in love with the jailer’s daughter, and on the eve of his death wrote her a letter signed “from your Valentine”.

However, Valentine’s Day wasn’t associated with romance until Chaucer’s time when he wrote about it being the day that birds chose their mates. February is early though for birds to begin mating, so why is February 14th the date chosen for Valentine’s Day?

One possibility is that it is the anniversary of St Valentine’s death. The other is that the date was chosen to coincide with a festival that was already taking place. The festival of Lupercalia was a pagan fertility festival that took place between 13th-15th February to celebrate the coming of spring. As many Christian and pagan festivals were amalgamated by the Romans, this is a likely explanation.

The Day of the Dead

skullThis festival is celebrated in Mexico on the 1st and 2nd November. It is a day when families gather together to remember their loved ones who have died.

Despite being celebrated so close to Halloween, there is nothing ghoulish about the Day of the Dead (or el Día de Muertos as it’s known in Spanish), nor is it a sombre occasion. Families don’t get together to mourn their dead, but rather to celebrate their life. They make altars for their loved ones, or visit their graves and decorate the gravestones, often even having a picnic at the graveside.

It is said that the spirits of the dead come back to earth for one day, first babies and children who have died and later the adults. The festival coincides with All Saints’ Day (1st November) and All Souls’ Day (2nd November), but like many dates in the Christian calendar, the festival has its roots much further back in time than the arrival of Christianity in Mexico, dating back to the Aztecs.

It was a festival to honour the Goddess of Death, Mictecacihuatl, and originally lasted for the whole of the 9th month of the Aztec calendar (from around mid July to mid August). The Spanish conquistadores tried to eradicate the festival, but the Aztecs clung tightly to their beliefs.

Eventually the festival was reduced to just two days and was moved to coincide with appropriate dates in the Christian calendar. However the celebrations still have a nod towards the original Aztec celebrations, and Mictecacihuatl, in the guise of a well-dressed skeleton, still plays an important role.

Here are some links to videos to explain to children what the Day of the Dead is all about: Day of the Dead 1st video , Day of the Dead 2nd video, Oaxaca: The Day of the Dead

I also found this post about Day of the Dead in Poland.