he whole family sitting around the table eating the biggest home-cooked meal they’ve seen all year, after days of preparation and giving each other gifts. The core idea of Christmas and Spring Festival is actually pretty similar.
Both festivals come when the weather is freezing and the world outside your door can seem a barren, inhospitable place. At least it does in northern China. My southern colleagues complain it’s also cold when they go home – but Guangzhou is 22 degrees warmer than Beijing as I write this, so I refuse to take that seriously. They just need to eat more lamb and drink more erguotou (Chinese liquor), probably.
Both festivals come with special foods. One tradition my wife’s family always sticks to when Spring Festival comes is having a nice big fish. The fish, which is a homophone for “wealth” or “prosperity,” represents both having something left over from the year gone by and also luck in the months ahead. Also key is the wrapping of platters of jiaozi (dumplings), which are placed before Buddha as an offering to ensure he looks out for the family in the coming year.
By contrast, the Christmas dinners I ate growing up were less laden with symbolism. The ostensible centerpiece of the meal – the turkey – has only one quality to recommend it for the get-together, namely that it’s so bland that no meat-eater hates it. Some families would place a coin in the Christmas pudding, which would supposedly bring luck to whoever found it. My mother wouldn’t do that however. I guess she thought we were lucky enough to be eating her pudding.
Both a British Christmas and a Chinese Spring Festival have almost-mandatory TV viewing, the main purpose of which seems to be to bring the whole family together in complaining. The UK has the Royal Christmas Message, a yuletide greeting from our monarch. This year the Queen called for her subjects to respect one another despite their political differences. Even this fairly uncontroversial message sparked criticism however, as some people took exception to being told how to debate by a woman sitting in front of an antique gold piano.
The annual Spring Festival Gala, shown on almost all the channels, also seems to mainly serve the purpose of getting its audience of hundreds of millions to grouse about how much better it used to be. Thoughtfully, the broadcasters give viewers plenty of chances to think of as many things they don’t like about the show as possible by repeating the skits and songs non-stop for days on end after the debut.
What really helps Spring Festival go off with a bang, besides the bottles of baijiu ceremonially toasted away day after day, is of course fireworks.
On my first ever Spring Festival a few years ago, we combined the baijiu and the fireworks to great effect by getting very drunk and going out into the street to blow things up (do not do this), almost leading to both I and my wife’s uncle losing a few fingers due to shorter-than-expected firecracker fuses.
Sadly, in my wife’s hometown and many other cities, fireworks have now been totally banned in the city center for anti-pollution reasons. This seems a great shame to me – perhaps it would be better to at least allow them on one day of the holiday. Surely many people would trade off a day of smog for the fun of blowing stuff up and the preservation of the tradition, thought to frighten away evil spirits.
While Christmas traditions haven’t been eliminated by government decree, some have faded away over the years. In Wales, people used to put a horse’s skull on a stick, put a hood on it and then carry it from house to house dressed as folk characters, singing and demanding drink. Unsurprisingly, this typically bizarre and obscure tradition hasn’t generally survived to the modern day. If nothing else, getting your hands on a horse’s skull is a little tricky when you live in the inner city.
However despite their similarities, the few weeks – and cultural gulf – that separate the two holidays lead to both having a very different idea at their heart, at least in my experience.
Christmas, with rich consumption now largely nudging the Christian elements to the side while pagan-origin iconography of evergreen holly and fir persist, reminds us of life continuing in the midst of the most miserable season.
Spring Festival on the other hand, has always struck me as a very forward-looking festival, with its focus firmly on the (eventually) coming spring and on hopes for luck in the year ahead.
So I hope Christmas, if you celebrate it, kept you going through the cold winter months, and I hope you’re feeling full of luck for 2019 after a few big Spring Festival fish. If you’re not, perhaps try to find a horse’s skull. You might get a drink out of it at least.