PERSONAL LESSONS FROM CHINESE NEW YEAR
by Jim Found, presented to Chinese student dinner on January 14, 2006
January 29 of 2006 will begin the year of the dog, Chinese year 4703. The decorations at the dinner were the Chinese word for blessing, turned upside down. This means “May blessing come down.” (fu dao).
I experienced my first Chinese New Year when I was 46 years old, living on Taiwan. I was frightened by loud firecrackers and I was embarrassed because I was not able to eat “nian gau” with chopsticks.
I was impressed with the idea of a “round table.” It shows that we are all one, and there is a place for everyone.
The expressions I heard were “Xin Nian Kuai Le,” and “Gong Xi Fa Cai.”
Have you done any of these customs at New Year’s:
Pay off debts?
Special foods, with special meanings?
For example, was “jiao zi” a hope for having sons?
Did you eat a kind of fish called “Lian Yu,” and say “Nian Nian You Yu?”
What about candy with special meanings?
Did you give money in red envelopes to the children?
Did you give gifts to your friends? Was it oranges and tangerines?
Do you do a ceremony of respect to your ancestors?
Did you put something sweet on a picture of the Kitchen God,
so it would give your family a good report?
Clean house before New Year’s?
But not on New Year’s eve, or you’ll sweep away good luck.
For the same reason, on New Year’s Eve, don’t wash hair and don’t use scissors.
See these websites for explanations of New Year customs:
The red strips on the door are called spring couplets (Dui Lian). This custom has an interesting background. One story is that there was a Peach Tree with one branch that reached to the ground. Evil Spirits could not go through the arch caused by that branch. Some stories say it was because of the power of the tree, and others say it was because of two brothers who were powerful enough to repel the spirits. People in the villages put wooden boards made of peach wood at each side of their doors to have the same effect. As the years went by, they carved figures of spirit guardians on the wood, or wrote spells on them to drive away the spirits. It was during the 5 dynasties period that a nobleman began to write rhyming verses on red paper and paste them on the doorway.
For a westerner, seeing the red strips on the door reminds of a story from the Bible. Around 1300 BC, a man named Moses led the Jewish people to escape from Egypt, where they had been slaves. One part of the story is that God told the Jews to take the blood from a lamb and put in on the sides and top of the doorway. That night, when “death” arrived, death did not disturb the people who had blood on their doors. Death passed over them. The principle was “saved from death through blood.” Still today, the Jewish people remember this event at a holiday called “Passover.”
Christians do not celebrate the holiday called “Passover,” but the story about the blood helps Christians to understand the work of Jesus. According to the Bible, when Jesus died on the cross, all of the punishment that I should receive was given to Jesus instead. Now there is no punishment left, so God gives me eternal life. Death will pass me by. The principle still is “saved from death through blood.”
I told this to a woman one day. When I said “Jesus has paid for your wrongdoing,” she answered, “I would rather pay for my own wrongdoing.” To a Christian, the fact that Jesus has taken care of my punishment is a source of joy, and strength for facing death. Christians believe that Jesus was able to accomplish this because of who he was: he was not only a historic figure, but was God who had become a human. Three days after he died on the cross, he became alive again, proving he had been successful over death.
One year when I was on Taiwan, about midnight on Chinese New Year, I received a phone call from a high school girl. She had recently become a Christian. She said, “Jim, I have sinned against God.” She said she had worshipped her ancestors, even though the Bible clearly tells us to worship only one God, the creator. She said she had admitted her mistake to God, and had asked God to forgive her. I asked the simple question, “Did He forgive you?” After a pause, when she realized that God was willing to forgive even that sin, she was filled with happiness. Christianity is about forgiveness, and the forgiveness is for certain because it was brought about by the blood of Jesus.
I mentioned my fear of firecrackers. Here is one story about that custom. “Nian” is the word for “year,” but originally meant a monster that preyed on people the night before new year (another source says twice a month). A villager convinced him to eat the beasts of prey, then rode away on him. (another story says the villager convinced the other people to scare him with noise, and when he got tired, they killed him). The beast fears red and fears noise. So the firecrackers drive away “nian.” Guo Nian means to “survive the monster” and to “pass the old year.”
This fear of monsters and spirits reminds me of a friend from Taiwan. His English name was Steve, and he operated a furniture store. He became a Christian. One day a customer saw a cross hanging on Steve’s wall. The customer said he had been a Christian once, but now he had returned to the Chinese traditional religions. Steve asked, “When you were a Christian, were you afraid of the ghosts?” The customer said, “of course not. Everyone knows Christians are not afraid of ghosts.” Steve asked, “What about now?” The customer admitted that his fear of ghosts had returned. Jesus takes away our fears, because Jesus is stronger than any ghost or spirit.
What do we need protection from today? Maybe not ghosts, but maybe bird flu, global warming, HIV, financial difficulties, and of course death. Nothing in this life is certain, but God’s love never ends. Christians find their security in God
A New Year’s wish: may your New Year dreams come true.
Jim Found. http://www.foundbytes.com/