The number of Chinese New Year customs can seem infinite, but what the average Singaporean practises today is just the tip of a large and ancient iceberg.
Many beliefs and rituals – from prayers to superstitious habits – have gone from rampant to rare over the years. We take a look at some of them.
1. HIDE THE BROOMS
Obsessive-compulsive cleaners and Quidditch players would freak out if they knew that it is considered unlucky to use a broom on the first few days of the Spring Festival.
Depending on how superstitious you are, this no-broom policy could last two to five days.
Sweeping the floor, taking out the trash and splashing water outside during this period all signify tossing out incoming good luck and wealth from the new year.
That’s probably why most Chinese families get their spring cleaning out of the way before the new year, and someone might go ballistic if you brush a broom or mop against their feet.
2. KEEP IT BLUNT
Hanging out in the taboo closet with brooms are sharp utensils like knives, scissors and needles.
These objects were deemed ominous and inauspicious as they could lead to squabbles with others.
Given the sometimes flared tempers at Chinese New Year, that was probably a wise idea.
3. DITCH THE WASH
If you hate doing your laundry, good news.
The Chinese avoid washing their clothes on the first two days of the Spring Festival – considered the birthday of the Water God, who gets offended at even a little rinse and spin.
There is also no need to wash your tresses on the first day. The Mandarin word for hair is “fa”, which also means “to prosper”. So lathering on some shampoo and conditioner would give you smooth and silky hair, but you would also be the poorer for it.
There was also a belief that cutting your hair during the first lunar month would somehow cause the death of your maternal uncle.
So yes, leave it long and prosper.
4. BEWARE THE DOG
According to folklore, the God of Anger, also known as the Scarlet Dog, would roam on the third day of Chinese New Year, presumably barking mad.
Whoever ran into him would have bad luck, so many Chinese chose to stay at home all day – neither visiting others nor receiving guests.
Given how this tradition is hardly heeded now, I guess you could say the dog days are over.
5. OPEN UP YOUR KITCHEN
Arguably the most important deity during the new year, the Kitchen Stove God would swing by each household and report what each has done in the past year to the Jade Emperor.
Hence, many Chinese families would display couplets at their kitchen entrance and offer him sweet delicacies such as sugar cakes, deep-fried pancakes and beancurd soup during the 12th month of the lunar year.
The hope was that the god would say only sweet things about them during the appraisal meeting.
On the fourth day of the Spring Festival, households would then welcome him back from heaven with incense, paper money, meat, fruits and even firecrackers.
6. POP THE CRACKERS
Originating in the Tang dynasty, these “exploding bamboo”, as they are called in Mandarin, were once ubiquitous at Chinese New Year celebrations.
Legend goes that a monster called Nian would terrorise villagers on New Year’s Eve, destroying their houses and devouring them if he felt peckish. The villagers later discovered that Nian was afraid of loud noises. Early firecrackers – made from putting gunpowder into dry bamboo sticks and throwing them into fire – were the choice din makers.
Chinese households eventually associated firecrackers with warding off evil spirits, and they would traditionally set them off at midnight, as Chinese New Year rolled in.
As safety became an increasing concern, firecrackers were banned in many large cities in China. In Singapore, they were outlawed under the Dangerous Fireworks Act in 1972.
All images from 123rf.com. This story was originally published in The Straits Times.