Posted in Reference
Today marks the first day of the Chinese New Year, a celebration which lasts some fifteen days and culminates in the Lantern Festival, which this year falls on February 14th. The reason for the fluid nature of the Chinese New Year is that it's based on the lunisolar calendar. The New Year celebrations begin with the second new moon after the winter solstice and end with the Lantern festival on the full moon. The Chinese zodiac rotates through twelve animals and today begins the year of the horse.
Given that China is the birthplace of tea, it should come as no surprise that tea has its own special role to play during the occasion. At the start of New Year's Day tea is offered by the younger generation to the older generation. If there are more than two generations present in the home, then the grandparents are first offered tea by their son/daughter, followed by the grandchildren offering tea, to their grandparents and then to their parents. The tea is offered with an appropriate greeting/blessing and there's often candied fruit at the bottom of the cup, symbolic of prosperity, good fortune and so forth. The person receiving the tea responds with a greeting and also presents the giver with a red envelope. In times gone by the envelope contained good wishes written on a slip of red paper, but over time it has come to contain a gift of money. Apart from the red envelopes, there's a lot of red in the decorations festooning homes and businesses at this time of year. Red is a colour associated with good luck and happiness, but there's a further reason for its prominence during the New Year.
In Chinese legend, a mythical beast called Nian terrorises the people of a village on the first day of the year by devouring their crops and animals, sometimes even their children. A wise old man advises them that the monster is afraid of the colour red and also of sudden loud noises. This accounts for the popularity of both the colour red and also the inclusion of loud, clashing cymbals during traditional lion and dragon dances. Firework displays are a common feature too, the explosions of sound as important as the displays of light for warding off evil.
Many of the foods eaten at New Year are chosen because their names in Chinese sound like other words with positive associations. For instance, fish sounds like 'surplus', niangao - a glutinous rice cake - sounds like 'year high', while tofu sounds like the phrase for 'good fortune for all'. Eggs are a favourite because of their obvious link with fertility and in fact eggs bring us once again to tea! Marbled tea eggs are a savoury delicacy in China. After hard boiling, the shells are cracked but left in place ready to be simmered gently for an hour or so in a mix of black tea, soy sauce and spices. Then the shells are removed fom the cooled eggs to reveal a delicate marbled pattern.
Happy Chinese New Year!