February 18, 2008
Happy Chinese New Year of the Rat
The big annual holiday in Taiwan is Chinese New Year, or Lunar New Year. This is the time when families get together to eat too much and watch TV, just like Thanksgiving and Christmas.
The whole country used to shut down for a week or so, but more and more places are remaining open nowadays. As lifestyles change, more families are heading to restaurants for the traditional New Year's Eve dinner, or even hiring caterers to come in and do the cooking. Still, expect New Year's Day to be very quiet, although the ubiquitous convenience stores will remain open throughout the holiday.
The exact dates are determined by the lunar calendar, but the holiday usually falls in January or February. As many people move to the cities for work, the roads are packed and flights and trains get booked well in advance as a large portion of the population return home for the holidays. If you are in Taiwan during the holiday, you should make travel plans accordingly.
The week or two before New Year's Day is a great time to visit local markets. In Taipei, Di Hua St., is probably the most famous place to visit. It comes alive with stores selling all the new year favourites, including dried squid, nuts of all varieties, candy, snacks which I still have no idea of the contents and decorations. The mix of red and gold is a wonderful spectacle, but be prepared for large crowds. You are also able to sample most goods, so when you are offered something, you can accept with no obligation to buy (really as long as you smile the staff won't be pushy or upset if you don't buy anything). This has to be the ultimate way to try so many Taiwanese snacks at one time.
There are many customs associated with the holiday, but perhaps the biggest is a nation wide "spring clean". It's out with the old in a big way and the streets are lined with old furniture waiting for the trash collectors to come by.
If you are lucky enough to be invited to a Taiwanese household for New Year's Eve, a box set of food or fruit, or a nice bottle of spirits (presentation is key with these kind of gifts) will go down well. You will be able to find these everywhere before the holiday, from convenience stores to supermarkets to department stores.
If you know there will be children present, you will be immensely popular if you put some money in a red envelope for them. You can get the envelopes at, yes, you guessed it, any convenience store. NT$200 per envelope will be fine.
Customs vary from region to region and even family to family, but these are the ones you might well come across.
Things that you should do include wearing red, keeping your windows open, setting off the loudest firecrackers you can find, putting up couplets and eating oranges.
If you forget to do the clean before the holiday starts, then it's too late. One of the things you definitely cannot do during the holiday is sweep. If you do, you will be sweeping any future wealth out of your home. Other things that are taboo include getting a haircut, borrowing anything, washing your hair and swearing. Do any of these and you will be doomed for the coming year. Doomed!
Gifts are not generally exchanged during the holiday as we would for Christmas, rather red envelopes are given out. Red is considered lucky (white signifies death) and family members give them to younger relatives with cash inside. When you start to work however, you have to start giving cash back to your parents. It does make Christmas shopping somewhat easier!
Decorations come in the form of couplets placed around the door, and certain plants which are considered lucky as they prevent any bad spirits coming into your home. The couplets are usually four characters long, hailing health, wealth and happiness for the coming year.
On New Year's Eve, families gather for the main meal, and what a meal it is. Last year I lost count after the tenth dish, or that might have been because of the local drink which is used to toast, Kaoliang. Made from sorghum, this vicious brew is best at 58% alcohol and is drunk from small shot type glasses. When you hear, "Gambei!" (the Chinese word for cheers), it's best to shut your eyes, throw your head back and hope for the best. But it does keep you warm!
One of the main dishes during the feast will be a fish cooked whole. It's said that in the old days at company feasts (otherwise called banquets), the fish was used to indicate who was about to get the chop. If the fish was pointing at you, you wouldn't be coming back (to work).
The brighter side for employees is that a new year's bonus is the norm, again inside a red envelope. If the company has done particularly well, this bonus may be more than an entire year's salary. Hey, that's just like the Christmas bonus I used to get at home! Not.
One final word of warning. At the stroke of midnight On New Year's Eve, prepare for an explosion of pyrotechnics. On my first New Year's Eve in Taiwan, no one had prepared me for this, and I really thought Taiwan was under military attack. The hand held rockets do not have a guidance system and will often travel horizontally. Although the government has cracked down on the number of firecrackers and fireworks for sale since then, it is still impressive.
If you are in Taiwan during this time, then there won't be a tremendous amount of organised activities. You will need to make sure you book reservations for hotels around the island well in advance, and allow for prices to be higher.
So a very Happy New Year of the Rat to all. Gongxi fa tsai!
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