New Year pictures, as their name implies, are made especially to celebrate the Lunar New Year holiday. With the coming of Spring Festival, these pictures appear in households throughout the nation, their bold outlines and vibrant colors adding to the excitement of the holiday season. New Year's pictures are an ancient Chinese folk art, reflecting the simple and thrifty customs and beliefs of the common people, and embodying their hopes for the future.
New Year pictures, like Spring Festival couplets, trace their origins to China's ancient door gods. After a certain point, however, these pictures were no longer limited to depicting the various protective deities, and became increasingly rich and colorful. Among the common subjects of New Year pictures are "A Surplus Every Year," "Peace Year After Year," "Blessings from Heaven," "An Abundance of Grain," "Flourishing Livestock," and "Spring Comes with Good Fortune."
Papercuts made from lucky red paper are often pasted in windows and on doors to celebrate Spring Festival. Papercutting is an extremely popular Chinese folk art. Papercuts usually draw their subject matter from legend, opera, and the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac. Bold and expressive, they depict a range of lucky themes and beautiful dreams, adding color and verve to the celebratory spirit of Spring Festival.
The character "福" fu means happiness and good fortune. It is as often used as a decoration during Spring Festival, expressing the hope for good fortune and a bright future in the coming year. In order to emphasize the significance of this character, it is often pasted on the door upside down. This is meant to cause visitors to remark, "Your fu is upside down," which is an exact homonym for the auspicious phrase, "good fortune has arrived."
In addition to door gods, Spring Festival couplets, New Year pictures, and papercuts, many families also paste up special decorations known as menjian on Lunar New Year's Eve for good luck. Made out of red or colored paper, these decorations consist of papercuts plus auspicious sayings, with a fringed bottom. Today, instead of the traditional menjian, many people put up "Chinese knots," a type of decoration made out of red cord tied into lucky designs.
Making sacrifices to the ancestors is one of the most important folk customs of Spring Festival. Traditionally, households prepared for New Year's Eve by bringing their family's genealogical records, ancestral portraits, and memorial tablets to the ancestral hall, where the altar was prepared with incense and offerings. In some regions, offerings were prepared for the deities of Heaven and Earth as well as for the ancestors. In other areas, obeisance was made to the Jade Emperor (the highest deity in the folk pantheon), and the Queen Mother of the West (wife of the Jade Emperor). The offerings, known as "offerings to Heaven and Earth," consisted of mutton, five types of cooked dishes, five colors of snacks, five bowls of rice, two date cakes, and a large steamed wheat-flour bun. The rite was conducted by the head of the household. After burning three bundles of incense and bowing to the ancestors, prayers were offered for a fruitful harvest in the coming year. Finally, paper images of money were burned, the smoke carrying the household's prayers and salutations to Heaven. These Spring Festival rituals were a way of wishing the ancestors and deities a Happy New Year.
It was considered imperative to honor the ancestors during Spring Festival, both to remember previous generations and to ensure the continuation of the family line. However, regional differences produced widely differing traditions. In some places, the ancestors were honored before the New Year's Eve feast, while in others the ceremony was conducted at midnight on New Year's Eve. In yet other places offerings were made to the ancestors on New Year's morning, right before opening the door of the family courtyard. In Taiwan, the year's final offering to the ancestors was made in the afternoon of New Year's Day. In some regions, offerings were made to the ancestors at home on New Year's Day, after which the household would travel to the ancestral temple for further ceremonies. In some places, it was customary to conduct the ceremony at the ancestral graveyard, burning incense, making offerings, and bowing to the ancestors. Today, people usually pay their annual respects at the graves of their departed loved ones.
On New Year's Eve, the house is brightly lit as the whole family stays up all night to see out the old year and see in the new. People do more than just sit around as they wait for the arrival of the new year. There is plenty to eat and drink, including wine, cooked dishes, New Year's cake, boiled dumplings, fruit, and assorted snacks, and all kinds of games are played. Since it's nighttime, most of the games are played indoors. Popular games include Go, Chinese chess, card games, and mahjong. Before it gets dark, children ride bamboo horses, spin tops, and play games like "Eagle Catches Chicken" and "Blind Man's Bluff". As midnight approaches, the parents prepare the family altar. They then light incense and make offerings to the ancestors and auspicious deities, bringing the New Year's festivities to their peak. After the ceremony is over, everyone exchanges New Year's greetings and eats boiled dumplings. It is also traditional to set off fireworks and firecrackers on New Year's Eve. As it gets closer and closer to midnight, nonstop explosions fills the air and the sky is filled with a sparkling display.
Since the 1980s, it has become extremely popular to watch the annual "Spring Festival Variety Show" on television on New Year's Eve.