The Chinese believe that to ensure blessings from the heavenly deities, it is important to remember the rituals associated with appeasing one’s household gods who are believed to ascend to heaven on the 24th day of the twelfth moon just before the end of each lunar year. In 2008, this corresponds to 31st January.
The ascent to heaven is part of their annual journey to pay respects to the God of Heaven, bringing with them a summary of the good and bad deeds of the residents of their abode. The custom is to give these Household Gods a great send-off. Offerings are made and loud firecrackers are let off on the day they ascend to heaven.
The most important of the Household Gods is the Kitchen God (Zhao Chun) who is specifically charged with looking after the welfare of residents of the home. He is the God responsible for submitting the report of the household’s activities through the year and he usually reports on the triumphs as well as the tribulations of the household. The Kitchen God will report to the God of Heaven (also known as the Jade Emperor) on what kind of luck the household needs most and make supplications on behalf of residents so that he brings down maximum blessings for the residents when he returns. The Kitchen God usually starts his journey to heaven a day earlier than the Household Gods i.e. on the 23rd day of the twelfth moon.
In Taoist households, the ritual of sending off the Kitchen God to the heavens can be elaborate, with impressive food and incense offerings laid out in the kitchen. This is because in the old days, the kitchen was regarded the most important part of the household, as it signifies the food and thus the survival of the household. Keeping the Kitchen God appeased was thus an important aspect of home feng shui. Amongst the food offerings, you will need to include fruit, cake, noodles, “lian kuo” and so on. Two important offerings which must accompany prayers are, first, a pair of bamboo which will symbolically lift the Kitchen God up to heaven and second, plenty of candies and sweets. It is believed that if the Kitchen God has plenty of sweet things to eat, he will sweeten his mouth and report only good things to the Jade Emperor.
In most homes, the Kitchen God is represented only by a piece of red paper on which is written the name Zhao Chun. Sometimes a line drawing of his image accompanies the name. The paper is stuck above the stove and on the day of his ascent to heaven, the paper is taken down and ceremoniously burnt. A new piece of red paper is placed back up to signify the household welcoming his return from heaven.
The Kitchen God returns to the house on the 3rd day of the New Year, a day before the return of the other household Gods who come back on the 4th day. When the Household Gods are not in the home, preparations for the New Year get started in earnest. It is said to be inauspicious to start any kind of spring-cleaning of the house before the Gods leave.
Auspicious must do’s in the week before new year day
As soon as the Kitchen and Household Gods depart for heaven, preparations for the New Year must begin in earnest. New clothes and new shoes are purchased, new auspicious decorative items put into place and feng shui re-energizing rituals done. Preparation always starts with the cleansing of old energy and this means cleaning cupboards, throwing out unwanted items and getting rid of stale energy. All the rooms of the house are given a good scrub. Furniture is moved out to sweep away dust and grime built up in the past year.
Special effort must be made to ensure the house is properly swept clean with a broom, which must then be hidden away so it does not get seen at all during the first day of the New Year. If the broom is taken out on New Year’s day, it will sweep away the family’s good luck bringing bad luck instead, so it is necessary to be careful about the broom.
Reenergizing Fuk Luk Sau
Most important is the reenergizing of the family’s Fuk Luk Sau, the three Star Gods of Health, Wealth and Longevity. If you have already invited these important deities into your home, make sure you clean them carefully during this preparation period. On the eve of New Year, light three candles in front of Fuk Luk Sau at 11am, as this officially carries the energy of the Star Gods into the New Year. If you do not yet have a set of these deities, this is a good year to look for a suitable set to invite into your home. The best place for them is a side board in the dining room, as this ensures there will always be plenty of food on the table, something that symbolizes prosperity.
Settling accounts of the old year
Business people should make certain they settle all outstanding debts by New Year’s Eve. To carry these over into the New Year is most unlucky as it portends going deeper into debt in the coming year. Before the closing of books on New Year’s Eve, it is considered auspicious to give red packets of money to the staff. This ensures happy, smiling faces as the business shuts down to celebrate the New Year. Business books should then be closed with red paper so that when they are reopened after the New Year, the red signifies an auspicious start. Repeat this ritual for the doors to your shops and offices. This ensures that when the business reopens after the New Year, the doors are already stuck with auspicious red paper.
Stocking up on sweets
A big part of New Year preparations is stocking up on sweet food and auspicious delicacies, and making the all important “lian kuo”. This must be carefully supervised by experienced aunties who will ensure the lian kuo made is sweet and tasty. If not, the luck of the year will also not be good. When making the lian kuo, no one may speak even a single bad or inauspicious word. Doing so will affect the luck of all family members. Children are thus prohibited from entering the kitchen.
All kinds of sweetmeats and cookies are made or bought to ensure there is no shortage of “sweetness” in the home, and the lian kuo is to ensure that this sweetness sticks. The lian kuo is believed to bring happiness and to ensure a high position for the family patriarch. It is particularly important for politicians and career professionals to safeguard their good fortune for the year. Another item to stock up on are mandarin oranges, which literally means “gold”. One important ritual of the New Year is to have dancing lions roll crates of oranges into the home on the first day of the New Year.
Four types of important foods
Just before the arrival of New Year’s Day, preferably on 6th February 2008, there are four important food items which a family must prepare. The four foods are salted fish, garlic, onion and celery. Each of these foods has a significant meaning. Get celery, garlic and onions, which have roots. This signifies that whatever you do, there is a beginning and an end. Tie them together. The salted fish should be fried to a golden colour and also tied together. Place fish and onion, garlic and celery inside your rice urn the day before New Year. Take them out on the first day of the New Year and use them to cook your meal on New Year’s Day. Doing so signifies you and your family will never be short of food.
1. Salted fish means “nian nian you yu” - an abundance of food where there is plenty left over.
2. Garlic means “Jin Da Sai Sui” - always having profits to calculate.
3. Onion means “Chong Meng” - full of wisdom and having clever solutions.
4. Celery means “Kan Lei” - hard working.
The reunion dinner
The last day of the old year is the time to pay respects to one’s ancestors. In homes where there are ancestral altars, this is a time when ancestors are invited to join in the reunion celebrations with all members of the family, many of whom would have journeyed back to the ancestral home to eat an auspicious meal together.
Traditionally, all the sons of the family return to their parents’ home and it is said to be unlucky to eat out on the night of the reunion dinner. The night is known as “Duan Yun Fan”. All the food served must have auspicious meanings.
At the dinner, all family members should be properly dressed. The women of the family should wear their jewellery as well as their fine clothes, as this signifies a continuity of good fortune. They should never sit to eat wearing old clothes looking tired or worn out. They should not look unhappy. Smiling faces bring good luck. Indeed, the more jewellery and smiles worn by the women of the family, the more auspicious will be the entrée into the New Year, which takes place around midnight (the Rat Hour). At this hour, every child must greet their parents with auspicious greetings.
The main door and if possible all other doors should be opened. The whole house should be lit signifying a burst of yang energy.