As children growing up in Beijing in the early '50s, we would put on new clothes and shoes before the New Year’s Eve dinner. We would eat peanuts, sunflower seeds, toffee candies, and pork cabbage dumplings and would visit relatives with our parents. They always took pastry boxes with them for the elderly.
There used to be temple fairs, but that was before my time. Children would look forward to the New Year as early as the 12th month in the lunar calendar.
As soon as New Year’s Eve dinner was finished, children could not wait to run out into the courtyard or the alley to let off firecrackers by throwing them into the air one by one. Some children were more daring; they would hold on to the end of the firecrackers and let them off in their hands with extended arms—"bang," crisp and sharp!
In those days, there were only a few varieties of firecrackers, mainly small ones. Most families would buy their children only one string of small firecrackers or only half a string. Nobody would let off an entire string of firecrackers all in one go.
The firecrackers could not be let off all the time. They had to be saved up.
Children would also go around holding paper lanterns with candles burning inside them. The lanterns were of different sizes and in red, green, yellow, or other colors. Their shapes could be round, oval, or styled like small animals. A bunch of kids holding lanterns would play hide-and-seek or war games in the yard. What happiness!
Yet, there were also mishaps. One year, with his big head and his small body, the third oldest child of one household fell flat on his face when he was not paying attention. Not only did his lantern burn, but his new clothes were scraped and torn, too. How he cried! One could guess that his luck that year would not be good either.
According to the tradition, on New Year’s Eve one would stay up past midnight to see the old year out and the new year in. Families began to make dumplings from the middle of the night on. Not being able to lend a hand, the children would eat peanuts and crack sunflower seeds. The elderly would make a pot of jasmine tea. Everybody would chitchat with one another.
The next morning, the floor of the house would be covered with shells of peanuts and sunflower seeds. Parents, however, would only allow the shells to be swept up into piles in corners of the room. They were not allowed to be taken out. It was said that to take rubbish out on the Chinese New Year would lead to financial loss.
Everybody would get up bright and early on New Year’s Day. When children saw their elders in the street they had to give them New Year’s greetings.
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