Samui Wining & Dining
On The Hop

Few festivals are more colourful and dramatic than the Chinese New Year, and this time around it’s the ‘Year of the Rabbit’.

 

3Probably the best-known of all the world’s carnivals is the fabulous Mardi Gras festival in Rio de Janeiro. But Europe can also go to extremes, with extravagant beer drinking Oktoberfest celebrations in Munich, Germany, and the tomato throwing festival at La Tomatina in Bunol, Spain, amongst several others. These are such splendid spectacles that thousands of people book their holidays at that time just to experience the event.

The same is true of Thailand also, with a marked influx of visitors for the serene splendour of Loy Kratong in November and the exuberant wetness in April of Songkran, the Thai New Year. But many areas of Thailand have a big chunk of Chinese ancestry assimilated into their gene pool, particularly in the Southern Region and Samui. Which is why the Thai nation has the luxury of letting rip on three New Year occasions; the Western one, their own, and also the Chinese New Year, usually in February.

The date varies. Asian calendars are based on the lunar cycle, which leads to a different date for each year’s celebration. Although it’s often at the end of January, this time the day falls on February 3rd and moves us all into the ‘Year of the Rabbit’.

If you’re not actually Chinese, or involved with a Chinese community, then you’ll see only a few outward signs of anything much before the eve of the New Year. The main things that appear are the colourful red and gold lanterns and good-luck banners. And just how extensive these are depends on what part of Samui you’re in. Maenam has a dramatic and colourful Chinese temple and the streets and the ring-road around this area are blazing with lanterns at night, strung across between the buildings and hanging from the houses. And that goes for Nathon, too, where there’s a concentration of Thai-Chinese families that have owned property for generations around the old part of the middle road. And there’s another temple further south, in Hua Thanon, too.

But if you’re a part of it all then your New Year observances will have been under way for some time already. Preparations tend to begin around a month before the date (much like that which happens in the lead-up to Christmas in the West). During this time people start buying presents, material for decorations and food and clothing. A huge clean-up gets underway and houses are scrubbed from top to bottom. This ritual is to sweep away all traces of bad luck or disappointment from the old year. Doors and window frames are often given a new coat of paint then decorated with paper-cuts and scripts with proverbs about happiness, wealth and longevity printed on them.

The climax of the celebration is known as ‘Nian’, but this actually only lasts for two days, occasionally three. This is the period when you’ll see streets closed to traffic and processions going from door to door, the feasting (often in the form of a big street party in the evening) and the skies filled with fireworks. But the whole season traditionally extends from the middle of the previous twelfth month up to the middle of the month after Nian. And towards the end of this time – 15 days after Nian – the ‘official’ end of the New Year is marked by the gentle ‘Festival of Lanterns’.

Like all ancient ceremonies, the entire event is full of symbolism. And, like most Asian rituals, these are numerous, detailed and closely linked to spiritual aspects. Many traditions have evolved to honour Heaven and Earth and the gods of the household and the family ancestors. Sacrifices to the ancestors, the most important element of all, unite the living with those who have passed away (deceased relatives are remembered with great respect because they are responsible for having laid the foundations for the current standing of the family).

Ritual and symbolism run through everything from decorations to food to clothing. The colour red wards off evil spirits (as do the fireworks) but you won’t see black and/or white anywhere as these colours are taboo and associated with death and mourning.

And the food is just as meaningful. Prawns stimulate liveliness and happiness, dried oysters promote good luck and harmony, and fish dishes bring good luck and prosperity. The edible angel-hair seaweed brings prosperity, and dumplings boiled in water (jiaozi) signify a long-lasting good wish for a family. These elements are always included in the family meal on the evening before New Year’s Day and afterwards everyone stays up to enjoy the midnight unleashing of firecrackers and fireworks.

But it’s the next day, New Year’s Day itself, that outsiders associate most with the event. This is when the processions take to the streets accompanied by the sound of gongs and drums to keep restless spirits at bay. This is re-enforced by the presence of the huge bobbing dragons, and the more meaningful lions which also accept money packets and spit out symbolic nourishment in the form of green vegetables. The red money packets, known as Hong Bao, are an essential aspect, allowing families go from door to door accompanied (and protected from evil spirits) by the rest of the procession, and exchange greetings and goodwill. This usually begins with relatives and then continues with neighbours. The packets contain money, usually a small banknote, and are presented by married people to children and those who’re single.

You don’t actually need to book your holiday around this event although it’s one of those special pageants that is both colourful and fascinating and not to be missed. But if you’re reading this then you’ve got two choices. You already have missed it, so you can carry on reading. Or it’s just about to happen so look out and listen. Don’t let the coming Year of the Rabbit catch you on the hop!

 


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