Trudging through the drab streets, I look around at the formerly dismal city scene now imbibed with a tiny spark of life. The bitterly cold winter of northern China is coming to an end! After months of grey skies, grey streets and even grey faces, sunlight-deprived after months of huddling indoors, spring has come at last. I’m on my way to Xiao Wang’s parents’ home to celebrate Spring Festival with her family.
The first days of spring are also the first days of the Chinese lunar calendar, known as the ‘Spring Festival’, or ‘Chinese New Year’. This festival is the highlight of the year in Chinese homes, and Xiao Wang’s home is no exception. Walking down the main thoroughfare, I admire the brightly lit lanterns decorating every shopfront and window. Each shop and home is sparkling clean – people have been literally spring-cleaning for the past two weeks. I enter Xiao Wang’s family’s apartment block, and climb the stairs, stopping to admire the beautiful calligraphy at every landing. The doorways are surrounded by strips of red paper which proudly boast magnificently written couplets expressing good wishes. In my overnight bag, I have packed brightly coloured new clothes, ready for the morning, as is the Chinese custom. I’ve only come from two streets away but Xiao Wang’s brother and his family have travelled from Shanghai to be here for this festival. In China, people go to extraordinary lengths in order to celebrate Spring Festival with their families.
In response to my gentle knock, the door is flung open and Xiao Wang’s little girl cries in delight, “Aunty is here!” I had insisted that a quiet evening at home tonight would be a pleasure, but Xiao Wang couldn’t fathom her Australian friend possibly wanting to see in the lunar year alone. Thus it is that I find myself in this cacophony of noise and excitement. I must admit that I'm thrilled to be here. I’m introduced to Xiao Wang’s brother, his wife and son. Xiao Wang’s husband, daughter and parents I’ve known for a while.
“Come and help wrap dumplings!”, Xiao Wang cries enthusiastically. The women had already prepared a mixture of meat and herbs, as well as made the dough for the dumpling wrappers. Now the extended family all sit around the round table, some rolling out little circles of dough, others deftly using chopsticks to place a centre of meat mixture on the round and then wrapping it with one swift motion of the hands. They pull up a stool for me, and bravely try to teach me to masterfully wrap the slippery balls, but my efforts are clumsy. Without some repair work, they would probably split open as the dumplings boil. Nobody seems to mind too much, and ‘my’ dumplings are soon mended with a new layer of skin.
Finally the dumplings are ready to cook. Some family members clear the table of the dumpling-wrapping mess, and then set it for dinner. Others disappear into the kitchen, and in no time, plates of steaming food are brought out – fish, vegetables and meat. The feast is completed with the freshly made dumplings. Xiao Wang’s father explains that they’re round, symbolizing unity, and the family have made them together, also pointing to the unity the family enjoy. I’m privileged to share this meal with them.
After this magnificent repast, we nibble on sunflower seeds, fruit and sip jasmine tea. We chat together, catching up on the year past that the family has been separated, while keeping half an eye on the TV. Every home in the country is tuned in to CCTV tonight, watching the special Spring Festival concert, interspersed with footage of the official countdown at Tiananmen Square. The adults reminisce about the days when they would let off fireworks near the door to their building at midnight. Due to safety concerns, fireworks are now forbidden in the cities, and the people are encouraged to watch the official fireworks in the major centres either in person or on TV. To be honest, I’d much rather sit in the warmth with my newly adopted Chinese family than stand outside in the bitter cold waiting for midnight to arrive!
As midnight approaches, all eyes are glued to the TV. The countdown begins and the camera zooms in on the big clock in Tiananmen Square. “Three – two – one – HAPPY NEW YEAR!’, the family shouts, while still watching the TV, now broadcasting the spectacular fireworks in Beijing. Everybody is laughing and wishing one another well. The children demand their packets of red money, and I'm glad to have been forewarned and have come prepared for the two cousins. Finally, one by one, we go to bed, although the children declare their intentions of staying up the whole night as custom demands.
Early in the morning, we don our new clothes, set aside especially for today, and hurry downstairs to the courtyard. The atmosphere is electric. People hand out gifts of lollies and red packets of cash to the children of the neighbourhood. In some ways, it is reminiscent of a huge morning street party. They celebrate life, spring and the beginning of a fresh new year.
Just a few weeks later, the Christians in China and world over celebrate Easter. From my perspective, this is also a real ‘spring festival’, as the early church intended it to be. By this stage of the year in the northern hemisphere, that drab grey landscape has been transformed. The trees in the parks are covered in little green leaves, and the cherry and peach blossoms are glorious. The main thoroughfare is lined with green bushes covered with a delicate yellow blossom, locally called ‘welcome spring’.
On Good Friday, Xiao Wang, myself and many other Christians attend a special church service to remember the awful death of our Lord. Away from Australia, I’m unable to purchase the commercial trappings of Easter. However, it is at this stage that I undertake my annual baking effort. My little oven produces dozens of hot cross buns, and Xiao Wang’s family are at the top of my list of recipients. On Sunday, celebrations are joyous as we now rejoice in life in all its fullness, remembering the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Xiao Wang finds it amusing to hear that Westerners may not necessarily go to church, but certainly will give beautifully painted eggs, chocolate eggs or chocolate rabbits to their family and friends on this day! I explain that eggs and rabbits symbolise new life and fertility. The hot cross buns have meaning too, but we rarely think about it. They’re made with spices, reminding of us of the burial spices used on Jesus’ body. They’re sweet, reminding us of the sweetness of the resurrection. They’re decorated with an empty cross, reminding us that Jesus is alive! Traditionally in England, I tell Xiao Wang, Easter Sunday was also the time when Christians would wear to church their new spring clothes and hats. Children still have ‘Easter Bonnet’ parades in some places. Easter is all about death and then new life.
Xiao Wang’s eyes light up. “That is rather like the Spring Festival, when we celebrate life after possible death”, she tells me. Following the Easter Sunday service, over a steaming bowl of noodles, she tells me the story of the origins of the Chinese Spring Festival.
The Chinese Spring Festival, Xiao Wang explained, has been celebrated for millenia. The story is that there was once a man-eating dragon called ‘nian’, who would roam the villages at the beginning of spring. The only way to prevent the mighty ‘nian’ from entering your home was to have a fire burning, light fireworks, and to paste bright red paper around your doorway to ward him off. Families would all huddle together inside, eating a meal together, confident that they were protected while they were within the house, but not game to venture outdoors until daylight. ‘Nian’, you see, was afraid of fire. The following day, the first day of the new year, people would go from house to house to see if their neighbours and friends were still alive, and to congratulate one another on safely surviving another year of life.
I listen attentively, eyes bright as I realize an even closer connection between these two festivals. “Xiao Wang”, I say, “You’ve read of the Passover festival celebrated by Jews, haven’t you? Well, that’s where Easter has its origins, and the similarities with your spring festival story are amazing! Listen to this.”
I tell my friend how Jesus Christ died and was resurrected at the Jewish Passover. In every sense, this was the fulfilment of the ancient Jewish Passover. The first Passover was celebrated about four millenia ago, in Egypt, and has been celebrated in various forms every year since by Jews.
At the time of the first Passover, the Israelites had been slaves in Egypt for four hundred years, and the time had finally come for them to shake off that yoke of slavery. After a series of curses on Egypt, because of Pharaoh’s refusal to let the people go, God sent the ultimate curse. The angel of death would enter every home and kill the first born son. The following morning, Pharaoh begged the Israelites to leave immediately.
The people knew that this was forecast, and the Israelites were told of how to avoid the curse. Each family was to gather in their own home and slaughter a lamb or goat as a sacrifice. The blood of the animal was to be painted on the portals of the door, the meat was to be roasted with special herbs and the family was to eat it together that night. In addition, the family was to make special bread that contained no yeast, and was to outfit each family member in new clothes and shoes, in readiness for the long journey from Egypt the following day. Sure enough, that night, as the Israelite families safely huddled indoors around their fires, feasting on the special meal but in no way game to step outdoors, the angel of death moved through the nation.
Two millenia later, Jesus Christ gave his life as THE perfect Passover lamb, at the feast of Passover. The symbolism of the original passover lamb is that it bore the sins of the people, thereby enabling them to temporarily escape the ‘angel of death’. The reprieve was only temporary, but in Jesus’ death and resurrection, our sins were taken and dealt with for eternity by the perfect Lamb. At Easter, Christians (Jews and non-Jews alike) remember the escape from death that is ours through faith in Jesus.
As Xiao Wang and I walk home along the streets lined with trees in full blossom that Easter Sunday, we chatter animatedly. We discover many similarities between the Chinese Spring Festival and the Jewish Passover. Both festivals occur in the spring in their cultures of origin. Both involve families huddling indoors for safety as a life-consuming figure prowls about in the darkness. Both involve red things around the doorway to repel the devourer of life. Both involve special foods eaten by the families indoors. Both required new clothing for the people. In both cultures, the people venture out in the morning to see if their friends are still alive and celebrate when they find that they are. Both festivals celebrate life!
Xiao Wang and I discuss how it is that two such different cultures – east and west - could have such similar festivals. Perhaps our world isn’t as large as we think. For sure, there are Chinese Jews, living just south of Xiao Wang’s province, who have held Jewish beliefs and observed Jewish customs for as long as anyone can remember. Did the Passover and the Spring Festival originate from the same source?
What we do know is that the advent of spring, after a long grey winter, is a wonderful event, worth celebrating! It offers hope for the future, and suggests new life. Similarly, for Christians, the promise of life after death, the first case of which was seen in our risen Christ, is something worthy of celebration. Xiao Wang and I link arms as we walk along in the warm sunshine with a spring in our step, realizing how much we have in common. Let’s celebrate life!
I'm amazed at the similarities you made between passover and spring festival.
It makes me feel a little bit better about it.
I agree, "let's celebrate life" - but as for celebrating... it (spring festival)... I don't know.
With lovely Christians, maybe it will be different. But I have yet to meet any Chinese Christians (not that I don't believe they exist. I know they're there somewhere!)
It's lovely the way people are during the holidays though... as a plus.