Sunday, January 25, 2009

Xing Jia Eu-ei!

Happy Year of the Ox! We are in the midst of several celebrations for Chinese New Year, including family rituals, parties, playgroups, and class presentations, which is as it should be because traditionally the new year is celebrated for 15 days. The most important of these was yesterday when we observed the holiday with Ma, Gong, and Goo at their home. I'm going to relate what I understand of the day, cribbing from notes that Ma wrote up for the babes' first new year four years ago. The spellings are hers; any mistakes or misunderstandings are mine.

We arrived well before noon, which is the time by which many of the family rituals must take place. See, new year's, as celebrated by a family at home, starts as a somber religious occasion. It's a combination of a Passover Seder and la Dia de los Muertos, but without the skulls (just a lot of red and gold dragons and animals of the zodiac). All the firecrackers and dragon dances are in the commercial districts, as business secure good luck and prosperity for the new year. At home, there are several offerings, prayers, and traditional foods.

When we arrived around 9:30, before the altar to Buddha was laid a table full of foods--fruits, candies, sweet buns, as well as flowers. Among the foods were what I can only describe as "red snowflakes," as all offerings have a little red on them for luck (sometimes paper, sometimes food coloring). In the dining room, the table was already full of various meats, fruits, candies, while soups simmered on the stove and stir fry ingredients were at the ready. None of this food was for eating, yet, which is hard for both kids and adults alike. But at least as adults, we understood.

But soon, Gong and Ma led us to the altar where they hei the offerings, or asked permission to remove them from the table to eat, which involves kneeling on the floor and raising the offering up and down three times. The kids enjoyed helping with the hei. And so, we started our feast with "smiling buns" (Kneg Kyow) seseame-covered lotus paste buns, grapes, strawberries, blueberries, long fried doughs with sesame seeds (laow-hual), little fried dough balls with sesame seeds, fried dough "nails" (ti-teng-taow), and lots of candy--candied kumquats, candied lotus root and lotus seeds, candied winter melon, and various nut and seed bars. We would nibble, or more precisely, gorge, on these for the next few hours.

In the meantime, we played and danced along with the singing and flashing golden turtle toy that Ma and Gong had bought in Chinatown a few years ago. It was loud, jarring, garish, perfect for kids, and totally entertaining. We lit the glowing firecrackers and the noisy firecrackers and Gong told about their significance: a long time ago, far far away in China, "mean people" wanted to take away the children of a town. The town realized that firecrackers would scare away the mean people and save the children. Now, we do this every new year to remember this. We told this story over and over again, particularly because Sis and Bud were a little nervous about the "mean people."

By 11, it was time to start the traditional prayers. In the dining room, all the stir fries and soups had been added to the other offerings. In all, there were:

  • Sa-Seiy, 3 or 5 different meats, today duck, chicken, squid, pork (there is never beef)
  • Tai-kig, or four clementines
  • Jing-Up, or a variety of candied peanuts (Sok-Zar), peanut bars, white and black sesame bars, and the other sweets I mentioned above
  • fruits, 3 or 5 kinds, including grapes, blueberries, strawberries, bananas, pineapple
  • Jay Chai, or 3 kinds of vegetarian offerings

There were also flowers, the Yang Tae or silver-gold paper money, a red Chinese candle, and sticks of incense. At each of the four places set for our particular ancestors (Gong's parents, Ma's mother, and another ancestor), there was rice and cups for liquour and tea. Ancestors are Kong-Ma, or invited to eat.

A member of the family, usually Goo because he is the youngest responsibe person, would pour 1/3 cup of liquor and tea for each ancestor. Then we all knelt (we-krab) with incense and asked for blessings. We had explained to the kids that it was like making "happy thought" (our nighttime ritual of naming things we like and are thankful for) wishes for others, like being healthy and happy. Bud wished for baseball, his usual first happy thought, but then remembered to wish for health for everyone. When the incense woud burn down by 1/3, we would do it again, and then again at 2/3.

At that point, about 11:40, we hei the paper money and took it outside, where we burned it in a metal bucket, which allows the ancestors to have money for things they like and then hopefully secures their blessings on us. This upset Sis. She didn't like the (controlled) flames nor did she understand why we were burning paper. This required attempts at explanations of ancestors, death, prayers, which was more than her 3 1/2 year old worldview could take in. It was over quickly enough and we could go back inside, for more playing and nibbling.

Around noon, the ancestors had partaken, symbolically, of the offerings and so we could hei the entire tableful of offerings, which were then reheated, stir-fried, combined in other dishes, and the like. Lunch was not far off at this point. Eating these blessed foods bring Pang-un, or luck. The kids love all the foods, gulping down fish ball soup, noodles, rice, baby corn, fresh bamboo shoots. I was enamored of the fried tofu with peanut dipping sauce (corn syrup, vinegar, crushed peanuts, a little sugar) and the stir-fried shitake mushrooms. Mama ate everything. Dessert of ka-nom tui (Sis's favorite coconut custard cups) followed--Sis had 5 of them! Bud ate an entire bowl of strawberries. And Mama and I loved the mashed taro (with coconut milk) and sugared ginko nuts. I'm not sure how I even managed to eat more, having devoured probably a dozen candied kumquats and other sweets.

Finally, after the meal and some relaxation, was the last ceremonial part of our day: the receiving of ang bao, or red envelopes of money. This year, these hung on several gorgeous flowering Chinese cherry blossom branches, imported from China and found in a store in Chinatown. Their delicate, white and pink blossoms looked like all those Chinese paintings you've seen. We dressed the kids up in their traditional Chinese outfits and then we all recited our rhyme: "Xing jia eu-ei, xing ni huac chai, ang bao tua tua kai." Sis and Bud received three envelopes each, from Ma and Gong, Mama, and Goo. Goo got one from Mama, as did Ma and Gong. Mama and I got one from Ma and Gong. There are several rules guiding ang bao--it's either a multiple of four or a multiple of your Chinese age (the kids were 5, I turned 40--because you age a year on new year not on your birthday--and you are one the day you are born. So, basically, you add two to your age, sort of); the youngest receive them from the older; when you begin working, you give envelopes to your parents; it is very rude to open the envelope in front of the giver.

There is so much more to the holiday that I don't know or haven't mentioned: traditional shopping days before; observances on the eve; the significance of the 4th day and special offerings; the 7th day and the meal of the 7 vegetables; and then the resumption of normal on the 15th day; as well as various prayers to different gods, spirits, and ancestors, as well as traditional trips to several wats and offerings to the Buddhas there.

We danced to the turtle music some more and then headed home, trunk full of food, stomachs too. Bud slept, Sis was too excited and talked the whole way home. A pretty good way to bring in the new year.

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