Traditions are often passed down from generation to generation through word of mouth from parent or grandparent to child. This age-old process is not without a little embellishment along the way to help entertain the young and impress on them a more memorable reason to keep the tradition alive.
One such oral tradition is that of the legend of Nian, which tells the story of how putting up red decorations and lighting fireworks came to be part of the Chinese New Year tradition.
This legend tells of a ferocious beast called Nian, which had a mouth big enough to gobble up a number of people in just one bite. It is said that every year, on New Year’s Eve, Nian would rise from its place at the bottom of the sea to come ashore and devour cattle and people.
Understandably, villagers would stockade own their village and flee for the mountains on every New Year’s Eve. One New Year’s Eve day the villagers of Peach Blossom village were visited by an old beggar. While other villagers were abandoning their houses in a hurry, an old grandmother gave him food and advised him to leave the village before Nian comes. Instead of heeding her advice, the old man proposed that he would stay the night at her house and drive away the beast. Unable to convince him otherwise, the grandmother agreed and left him in her house while she herself made for the mountains.
That night, Nian entered the village and found it to be quite different from previous years. While the other houses were empty, the grandmother’s house was lighted up with red paper stuck to the door. Annoyed at the sight of the house, the monster charged towards the door where a cacophony of loud explosions burst forth. Stunned by the noise, it stopped in its tracks just before the door. The old man threw open the door, wearing a red robe and laughing. As it turns out the beast was terrified of the colour red, loud explosions, and fire. Overwhelmed by the sight of red and the din of the firecrackers, Nian promptly fled the village.
The following day, on the day of the first lunar year, the villagers emerged from the mountains and returned to their village where they found it untouched. Curious, the villagers went about inspecting their homes, when the grandmother remembered her visitor and told them of his promise. As they gathered around her house, they didn’t find the old man, but they found the red paper that he had stuck on her door, the bits of bamboo used for firecrackers, and still glowing candles in the house.
While the old man was never to be seen again, the villagers realise that he might be a celestial being and that the red paper, cloth, and candles, along with the firecrackers, were what drove Nian away.
Overjoyed that the scourge was finally driven away, the villagers put on new clothes and hats and went to the homes of their friends and neighbours to share their joy and relief. The villagers also spread the news to surrounding villagers, and the people began to enjoy a more peaceful life. Ever since then, in remembrance of the legend of Nian, the ushering of a Chinese New Year is always marked by red decorations and the sound of firecrackers.
It might only be a legend to give reason to a festival that celebrates the end of the harsh winter and the beginning of a beautiful spring, but it is certainly one that will live on in the hearts and minds of those who celebrate it.
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