Legends of Spring Festival

Shi Ke

PureInsight | February 27, 2003

[PureInsight.org] According to the Chinese Lunar calendar, the Spring Festival signifies the end of one year and the beginning of a new year. It remains the most important holiday in China. Before January 1st in the Lunar calendar, many Chinese people hold memorial ceremonies for their ancestors. Adults usually give children some money as a New Year's gift and people will visit their relatives and friends. The Lantern Festival is the fifteenth day after the New Year. Colorful lanterns are everywhere in towns and villages. Chinese people partake in many outdoor activities. The Spring Festival ends after the Lantern Festival is concluded.

The Spring Festival has a long history. It is said that the Spring Festival stemmed from memorial ceremonies for the gods and their ancestors at the turn of the year in the Shang Dynasty. Here are some legends about the Spring Festival.

The Legend of "Year" (Nian Monster)

In ancient times, there was a kind of monster called Nian. It had long horns on its head and was renowned for its ferociousness. Most of the time, Nian stayed close to the bottom of the sea. But on a certain day of the year, Nian would come ashore, consume domestic animals and even attack human beings. Therefore, on the day before Nian would come, the old and the young fled to the mountains to avoid the vicious monster.

One year just before the day that Nian was going to come ashore and people in a village were preparing to seek solace in the mountains, an old beggar came to the village. He carried a walking stick. His hair was white, but he looked like a child. He was full of vigour with an impressive temperament.

Some of the villagers were busy packing their luggage, while others were trying to organize their cows and sheep. The village was chaotic. Nobody paid attention to the old beggar. In the eastern village, only a kind old lady gave him some food and urged him to go to the mountain to avoid the monster. The old man told the lady, "If you allow me to stay in your home one night, I will drive the monster away." The old lady thought he was joking and kept on persuading him to leave. The old man just shook his head. The lady could do nothing about it. She went to the mountain, leaving the old man alone in her house.

Around midnight the monster Nian rushed into the village. It went to the old lady's house. Several big pieces of red paper were put up on the gate and it was very bright inside the house. The monster stared at the house for a while and then threw itself at the door. When the monster approached the door, it heard some explosive sounds much like booming thunder. Nian was afraid of the red color, firelight and the loud sounds of explosion. At that moment, the door opened from the inside. An old man in a red robe stood in the courtyard. Nian was so frightened he ran back to the water.

The next day when villagers came back from their shelters and saw that their village was not destroyed, they were pleasantly surprised. The old lady realized that the old man must have kept his word, so she told the villagers about the promise. The villagers all crowded into the old lady's home. They saw the red paper on the gate. In the courtyard, there were some bits of firecracker. Red candles were still lit inside the house. The thrilled villagers put on their new clothes and hats and visited their friends and relatives to celebrate the defeat of the monster. They passed the day propitiously. People learned how to drive Nian away. Nian came to mean "Year" in Chinese, and the day that Nian used to come ashore became the New Year day. On the eve of the New Year day, every family in China will put up red couplets and light some candles at home. Some people will not sleep and wait for the day to come. In early morning of January 1st in Lunar Calendar, people visit their relatives and friends and send them their best wishes. Chinese people gradually acquired this custom and the Spring Festival became the most important traditional holiday in China.

Wan Nian Created the Lunar Calendar

It was said that a long time ago, there was a young man named Wan Nian. At that time, the climate and other natural phenomena of the season did not match with the regular calendar. Wan Nian always thought about creating an accurate calendar. One day, while collecting firewood on a mountain, he became tired and rested under the shade of a tree. He saw that the tree's shade moved on the ground. He was inspired and designed a sundial that calculated time by measuring the movement of pointer shade. However, it depended on the weather. Afterwards, he was inspired by dripping spring water on a cliff, and made a clepsydra with five levels. He discovered that every so many days, the length of the day would repeat, leading him to discover the time period of one year.

At that time the king was Zuyi, who was guided by the incorrect calendar. After Wan Nian created the sundial, he brought it to the king. He explained to him the principle of the movements of the Sun and the Moon. After listening, Zuyi was very pleased so he asked Wan Nian to stay at the temple. He built the Pavilion of the Sun and the Moon in front of the Temple of Heaven, and a platform for the Sundial and a terrace for clepsydra. Zuyi told Wan Nian, "I hope that you can establish the accurate rule of the Sun and the Moon, and discern accurate time from morning to evening. You will create a calendar that will benefit people."

Wan Nian engraved the Calendar on stone wall by the Temple of Heaven. It read,

There are 360 days in a year,
Then it will repeat this cycle.
There are four seasons,
And the Moon becomes full 12 times in a year.

One day, Zuyi stepped by the Pavilion of the Sun and the Moon to see Wan Nian. Wan Nian pointed to the cosmic climate and told Zuyi, "Now it is just the end of the 12th month in the year. The old year will end, and the New Year will begin. Would you please name this day a festival?" Zuyi said, "Spring is first season of the year, so let us call it the Spring Festival." Finally, Wan Nian created a new calendar based on long term observation and accurate calculation. When he presented it to the new king, Zuyi's successor, his hair had all turned white. In order to be honored for his contribution, the king named the calendar "Wan Nian Calendar," and honoured him with the title of Elder of the Sun and the Moon. Chinese people still put up the picture of the Elder of the Sun and the Moon in their homes during the Spring Festival, which is said to be the picture of Wan Nian. Thus, the holiday is called the Spring Festival.

The translation from: http://www.zhengjian.org/zj/articles/2003/1/31/20241.html

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