Chinese New Year, or simply New Year as it’s known to the Taiwanese, is the creme-de-la-creme of the many festivals celebrated in Taiwan. Much like our own Christmas and New Year celebrations, it is a time for family (or family arguments), eating (or over-eating), and general thankfulness or thanklessness depending on your disposition. Having a whole week off work put me firmly in the thankful category, and I lurched into the New Year with considerable excitement.
We were decidedly unprepared for Chinese New Year Eve, and to my horror all of our favourite eateries were shut, along with the supermarkets. A lesson we learned the hard way is that its wise to stock up on food beforehand. Luckily, I had been given an obscene amount of nougat, cakes, papaya and oranges by thoughtful parents and co-workers, so starvation was held at bay. Traditionally, Chinese New Year’s Eve (the day) is spent cleaning the house, whilst the evening is spent watching fireworks. The next day, Chinese New Year’s Day, is traditionally everyone’s birthday, so no wonder my little students have difficulty working out their own age when they are one at birth and have two birthdays per year. No birthday would be complete without new things, and for CNY new clothes, as well as new haircuts, are considered the best way to start a new year. Savvy hairdressers raise their prices for CNY, so even savvier customers tend to get their hair done a few weeks beforehand.
New clothes includes new underwear, and the preferred colour is bright red. This is perhaps the only time of the year when bright red underwear is universally acceptable and is something I feel should be embraced the world over. Bright red is worn to scare away the “monster,” (known as Nian, the same word as year in Chinese), but I imagine that some people are more scary in their red underwear than others. This is also the reason why firecrackers and fireworks are let off at every opportunity.
Charlie and I were fortunate enough to be invited to spend the day with another teacher and his Taiwanese family, an offer we keenly took up. We spent the day with the Xie (pronounced something like Sh-ay) family, traipsing from temple to temple, learning the subtle differences between Buddhist and Daoist buildings thanks to the wonderful Heidie Xie. Incense and firecrackers set the tone for the day, and covered the morning in thick plumes of smoke. This was in addition to the burning of ‘ghost money’ – thick wads of paper notes sent up in flames to keep the ancestors in good funds, and bring good fortune to the still living. The other theme of the day, was of course, eating! Its considered good luck to eat a seven-course meal for breakfast, and the rest of the day kept to a similar vein, with food in abundance available at every temple. Not realising this would be the case, we had eaten a hearty breakfast before even leaving our house, so we were fit to burst by the time temple number four came around! Alas, from under-eating to overeating, you live and learn! Happy New Year everyone!