Largest annual mass human migration in the world

And we think travelling for Christmas is a big deal! No, we have nothing on the global numbers who will reunite with friends and family on Chinese New Year. 

It is not surprising that communities all over the world are busy with preparations for the lunar new year, weeks ahead of the start. Why wouldn’t it be similar to the run up to Christmas, back home in Canada? It might also explain why the ‘happy new year’ decorations didn’t seem to be taken down in Asia, days after January 1st. They likely serve as a starting place to add the extra adornments for the big event taking place quite late this year on February 16, 2018. 

The date depends on the new moon which occurs between January 21 and February 20. This is the lunar new year or Chinese new year. Celebrated by an estimate of 1.4 billion Chinese people world-wide. Not to mention all the other nationalities joining in the festivities to some degree. I think it is safe to say, this is a big deal.

Like many rituals originating in the Far East, there are many layers of nuance and tradition which are strictly observed. These are the aspects you can count on being the same, no matter where you are in the world, when the event takes place. 

In the days leading up to the new year, homes are thoroughly cleaned and swept. It is believed the cleaning sweeps away the bad luck of the preceding year and readies the home for good luck. Brooms and dust pans are put away on the first day so that the newly arrived good luck cannot be swept away.

Generally, people are preparing for a major yearly event so they do other typical things like purchasing new clothing and shoes to symbolize a new start. This is similar to Christian celebrations where people will dress up and look their best, possibly needing new clothes to do so.

In Chinese society, money plays an important symbolic role as well as serving the commercial one. Businesses are expected to pay off all the debts outstanding for the year before the new year eve, extending to debts of gratitude. Thus it is a common practice to send gifts and rice to close business associates, and extended family members.

The big event is the reunion dinner. Just prior, a prayer of thanksgiving is held to mark the safe passage of the previous year. Then the big meal. Dishes consisting of special meats are served at the tables, as a main course for the dinner and offering for the New Year. Various traditions, depending on religion and location guide the celebration, which dishes will be served, whether the family attends a service, etc.

The first day is for the welcoming of the deities of the heavens and earth, officially beginning at midnight. It is a traditional practice to light fireworks, burn bamboo sticks and firecrackers and to make as much of a din as possible to chase off the evil spirits. Most importantly, the first day of Chinese New Year is a time to honor one’s elders and families visit the oldest and most senior members of their extended families, usually their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents.

I think the traditions around elders are fantastic. The reverence and respect and gathering of the whole family is something I don’t think we do enough of in our Western culture. At least not as a ritual in and of itself. We include all family members, of course, but we don’t often place the oldest members of our family as the guests of honour. 

The second day of the Chinese New Year, known as the ‘beginning of the year’, is when married daughters visited their birth parents, relatives and close friends. And on it goes for a total of 15 days, depending on how many days your family or region customarily celebrate. Various different activities mark each of these days.

Other symbolic practices abound. Red packets or red envelopes are given, containing cash. Preferably newly minted bills of certain lucky denominations. The meaning of this practice translates to, ‘the money used to suppress or put down the evil spirit’. Of particular significance is the giving of packets by long married couples or the elderly to unmarried juniors. It is also common for adults or young couples to give red packets to children.

In addition to red envelopes, which are usually given from older people to younger people, small gifts (usually food or sweets) are also exchanged between friends or relatives (of different households) during Chinese New Year. Gifts are usually brought when visiting friends or relatives at their homes. Common gifts include fruits (typically oranges), cakes, biscuits, chocolates, and candies. I love the idea of bringing gifts when you visit another person’s home. I try to do this, but familiarity often makes us forget this special ritual. I fear it may also be considered old-fashioned in an increasingly digital age, which would be a shame.

Markets or village fairs are set up as the New Year is approaching. These usually open-air markets feature new year related products such as flowers, toys, clothing, and even fireworks and firecrackers. It is convenient for people to buy gifts for their new year visits as well as their home decorations. There are elaborate displays in the shopping malls, attracting crowds of people. Individual brands create special clothing items to commemorate the symbols of the new year.

Everything is coloured red, as it was once believed that red could scare away evil spirits and bad fortune. Now, red is a colour of good luck. Red is the emblem of joy, and this color also symbolizes virtue, truth and sincerity. That is a lot of pressure to put on one colour!

Traditionally, families gather together during the Chinese New Year. In modern China, migrant workers in China travel home to have reunion dinners with their families on Chinese New Year’s Eve. Owing to the large number of interprovincial travellers, special arrangements were made by railways, buses and airlines starting from 15 days before the New Year’s Day. This 40-day period is called chunyun, and is known as the world’s largest annual migration.

Needless to say, the preparations and the decorations on display are very elaborate. The grand scale of it reminds me of many places around the world honouring Christmas. Since we have elected to keep our holidays very low-key recently, I’ve missed out on the pomp and circumstance of it all. But, the lunar new year will go in without us, just as the Christmas dinners back home did.

I wish the best to everyone who celebrates and honours this time of year. 新年快乐 or Happy New Year. 2018 is the year of the dog and the element is the earth. Let’s hope everyone pays special attention to the earth this year. I think that is something we can all agree, needs some kind, loving care.

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