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New Year in Asia - January 2003 Newsletter

 

The coming and arriving of the new year calls for all sorts of festivities and celebrations around the world. For many cultures and countries, the New Year holiday is a very important and sacred time of year. Whereas a common American custom is to stay up until midnight, drink champagne, and throw confetti, many Asian countries (along with many other countries) celebrate for days or weeks and may worship in temples and show respect for ancestors.

Japan
Shogatsu is what the Japanese call their New Year celebration. Shogatsu has recently been observed beginning January 1 with up to several days of celebration afterwards. Many Japanese also observe the New Year according to the Buddhist and lunar calendar which falls during February. A very important and serious occasion, all stores and businesses are closed during the New Year celebration in Japan.

As with many other Asian countries, Japan's new year's celebration began with ancient harvesting as their ancestors developed annual rituals thanking the gods for their harvests. There are also other customs that are still practiced which reflect Japan's ancient beliefs. One such custom is that of hanging a rope of straw, called shime-kazari, across the front of houses which symbolizes the welcoming of the spirits as well as good luck.

Another new year's custom for the Japanese is to ring bells at temples or monasteries 108 times in order to rid of the evils of the past year which according to some legends can also be interpreted as the 108 human desires that need to be removed from everyone. Many people, whether they are religious or not, also find it customary to visit temples to ask for wishes or prayers. One of the most popular noticeable customs the Japanese carry out during this time, additionally, is that of exchanging greeting cards called nengajo. Just as many Westerners send out greeting cards for Christmas, the Japanese give cards to friends family, and co-workers for the new year.

The most important holiday of their year, the Japanese prepare for the new year weeks before by cleaning, fixing up or getting new items, and making resolutions. On the start of the new year, the Japanese also prepare and eat special foods. Soba, or noodles, are almost always eaten as they represent long life; sake, rice wine, is usually served during the day; and mochi, pounded rice treat, is made symbolizing the harvests.

China
The Chinese New Year is celebrated on the first day of the first moon of the lunar calendar and also accords with the Zodiac and Buddhist calendars. In the solar or Western calendar, the Chinese new year starts from as early as January 21st to as late as February 19th.

For many families, it is a time for feasting, visiting relatives and friends, but in the city a spectacular procession takes place. The celebrations are based on bringing luck, health, happiness, and wealth till the next year. They clean their houses to rid them of lasts year's bad luck before the celebrations begin.

There are street parades where thousands of people line the streets to watch the procession of floats in the New Year parade. Dancing dragons and lions weave their way through the crowded streets. The dragon is associated with longevity and wealth. Inside the costumes are 50 dancers, twisting and turning the dragon's long silk body and blinking eyes.

The Chinese believe that evil spirits dislike loud noises so they decorate their houses with plastic firecrackers. The loud noises are intended to frighten away evil spirits and bad luck that the spirits might bring.

They also go to the markets to buy plants and flowers that will bring them good luck for the New Year. The Kumquat tree is considered to be the luckiest because its name is a play on the word lucky. The peach blossom is also considered to be lucky and the markets are decorated with the delicate blossoms wrapped in tissue paper that stops them getting damaged. The tangerine is lucky as well because of its bright color, but, because odd numbers are unlucky, the tangerines are always given in pairs.

Lucky money is given out in red envelopes with the family name and good-luck message written on them in gold. Red is also the color for many decorations because it is associated with joy and happiness.

The feast on New Year is always big for the first day of the year. If the New Year falls on the year of any particular animal the Chinese try not to eat that animals meat.

Vietnam
Nguyen-dan is the formal name for the Vietnamese New Year though most refer to it as Tet. Tet is celebrated with three main days after the first full moon in late January. This time of year also holds a certain significance as it has traditionally provided one of the few breaks in the agricultural year, as it falls between the harvesting of the crops and the sowing of the new crops.

As with many observances and celebrations, the Vietnamese practice many customs for Tet. On the day before the arrival of the new year, a plant, such as the bamboo tree, is planted in the courtyard of homes. The tree is decorated with bells, flowers, and red streamers. While decorative, the decorations actually serve to guard the family against evil spirits. At midnight of New Year's eve, the head female member in each family lights firecrackers to bring in the new year. It is also believed that the first person to walk through the door in the New Year will reflect the family's future luck and wealth.

On the first day of the new year it is customary for the Vietnamese to visit all their closest friends, teachers and their parents. On the second day they visit their in-laws and acquaintances. On the third day they visit the family of their teachers and their more distant relatives. The local temple is also visited from which flowers or greenery are brought back as a gift from the celestial spirits to keep in the home all year. Through out each day of Tet, an offering is placed on the altar of the household for the ancestors of the family; incense is also burned at the altar.

A week before the New Year, the kitchen god tao is observed. The Vietnamese believe there are three gods represented by the three legs of the cooking equipment used in the kitchen. The middle god is a woman the other two are her husbands. It was also once customary to provide the gods with a carp on which to travel. The carp represents a stage in the process by which animals are gradually transformed into dragons. Carps are usually bought from the market, brought home and placed in a bucket of water to place at the altar of the house before it is later set free.

Of course, the Vietnamese also prepare special food for the New Year's celebrations. A common dish eaten at this time is banh chung or banh tet which is a special rice pudding made with mung beans and pork. Other New Year's food also include preserved sweets, beef, chicken, fish, oranges, coconuts, grapefruits and other seasonal fruits, especially watermelon. Watermelon is considered lucky because the flesh is red.

Thailand
The Thai New Year festival is called Songkran and lasts for three days from 13 to 15 April in tradition with Buddhism. During this time, many visit the monasteries to pray and offer gifts of rice, fruit, sweets and other foods for the monks. Many Thai people also go back to their hometowns to visit their grandparents or family and ask for good luck. This practice is also related to the Thai custom of respecting elders, especially senior citizens.

The Thai also observe many other customs as part of their celebration for the New Year. One such custom is to throw water over one another, as it is believed that it will bring good rains in the coming year and all the Buddha statues and images will be washed. Another custom, for good luck, is to release birds from their cages or fish from their bowls. Fish are carried in their bowls to the river to be released all at the same time.

In the morning on January 1st, children often ask for some blessings or wishes from their parents and grandparents, both of which will give the children money. It is usually expected that the children buy new things because it is believed that everything should be new for the New Year as new things are a good sign for starting life again.

Cambodia
Like the Thai, the people of Cambodia use the Indian or Buddhist calendar to start their New Year festival around April 13th , lasting for three days. People clean and decorate their houses, as well as set up an altar to welcome the New Year Spirit Tevada Chhnam Thmey who is said to come down to earth at this time. A statue of the Buddha is put on the altar, also flowers, candles, incense, a bowl of scented water, food and drink, and banana leaves shaped into different figures.

In day one of the festival people visit their local monastery and offer food to the monks. A special sand mound is built in the grounds of the monasteries on this day. The mound is decorated with five religious flags, one on top of the mound and four around the sides. Special games such as Angkunh and Boh Choong are also played at the monasteries on each day of the festival.

On the second day of the festival, people gather with their families to wish each other a happy New Year and exchange gifts. They might also visit the monastery again to ask the monks to say a special prayer for their ancestors.

On the third day, the Buddha statues of their homes and the monasteries are washed. Like the Thai belief, it is said this ensures good rains during the coming year. Children also wash the feet of their parents as sign of respect on this day as well.

Hmong
The New Year Festival for the Hmong is celebrated with everyone in the community. Traditionally, the New Year has been the only time of the year that the Hmong have off as they farm all year long. This time of year is also very important as it fulfills most of their religious and social functions.

The Hmong do not celebrate the New Year on the official date all the time as it may not coincide with the end of the harvesting of the rice. It is also preferable that the New Year festival coincide with other nearby villages so that the unmarried men of the village can meet perspective wives in other communities as well.

The New Year festival must also be at least three days as it is considered bad luck for it to last an even number of days. The celebration may also last for a month to a month and a half.

In addition, the three most important aspects of the festival are the observance of religious rituals; the pairing among young people; and the display of wealth.

Religious rituals take place on the last day of the old year which is called hnub peb caug or the thirtieth day. The Hmong believe in a wide variety of spirits both good and bad. It is believed that there are many ways to help keep the good spirits happy such as asking for their assistance for the year ahead. It is also believed that the bad spirits can be removed by performing or using one of the following: sweeping the house; using the magic rope Nkaum Taw Qaib; calling home the spirits; or other rituals such as giving the family's money a rest for three days.

Laos
Laotian people celebrate New Year according to the ancient Hindu or Buddhist calendar as well. Their festival also lasts for three days and falls on the 13, 14 or 15 of April and is known as Pimai. The festival coincides with the end of the dry season and the start of the rains. It is seen as a day of rebirth and purification. The first day of the New Year's celebration, called Sangkhan Long, is considered to be the last of the old year and so people clean their houses in preparation for the new year ahead.

One of the Laotian customs is to carry sand and silver bowls of scented water which are used to help the monks clean the Buddha statues, while the sand is used to build sand mounds in the courtyards of the temples. These mounds are usually built on river banks. Like the Cambodian custom, the mounds are decorated with flags, flowers, money and candles, and people make wishes for the new year.

The second day of the festival, called Mueu Nao, is actually considered a dangerous time because the spirit of the old year has departed, while the spirit of the new year has not yet arrived, and therefore their is no spirit to protect them from any misfortunes. This day falls between the end of the old year and the beginning of the new year. It's for this reason that people might stay home and not do anything but have a day of rest.

The third day, Sangkhan Kheun, is the start of the New Year and is the most joyous day of the festival. People go to the temple and make offerings of prayers, food and flowers. They then return to their homes for a special family ceremony to welcome the new year.

This ceremony is known as soukhouane, and is performed on new year as well as any important occasion, such as a birth, death or even a marriage. The ceremony is performed sitting down around a table which has a bowl of flowers with candles placed on top known as baci. Offerings are placed under the baci such as food and drink. At the ceremony the family is joined by a morporn who is a highly respected member of the community who recites appropriate prayers. He has a piece of string tied to his finger which as attached to the baci, and so do other senior family members.

After the ceremony, the morporn is offered whisky which has been placed under the baci. He always refuses at first but finally accepts. It is then offered to all the adults of the family.

A New Year ritual of using the threads from the baci is carried out where each person of the family in turn is tied around the arm and blessings are carried out. For the blessings to work the threads must be worn on the arm for three days. It is after this they must be untied not cut as this was unlucky. The baci is kept intact for three days, after which the flowers are thrown away.

Another New Year's day custom is the releasing of captive animals which is performed as the Laotians believe this will bring good fortune to those who let the captive animals go. A cage might also be built for the animals so they can come back if they so wish to.

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