The Little New Year ( ‘小年--Xiaonian’ in Chinese, also called the Minor New Year’s Day), usually falls a week before the lunar New Year. In 2021, it falls on Feb. 4. The Chinese Little New Year is not a fixed festival as it varies with local customs. Folk activities during the Little New Year mainly include sweeping dust and worshipping Kitchen God. So, the day is also called the Festival of the Kitchen God (the deity who oversees the moral character of each household). Chinese Little New Year means that Chinese people begin to prepare special purchases for the Spring Festival and are ready to spend a clean Spring Festival. Also, it suggests a new year with a new image and expresses the good wishes of Chinese people to ring out the Old Year and ring in the New Year.
Origin of the Festival
Worshipping Kitchen God is the most important folk activity in the Chinese Little New Year. Legend has it that Kitchen God was a rich man named Zhang Shan, who married a good wife Guo Dingxiang but divorced and remarried a woman Li Haitang. The second wife was gluttonous and lazy, and she quickly spent all the money of Zhang Family and remarried another man. Zhang Shan experienced the family decline and suffered a fire, becoming a beggar. One day, he begged a family for food and the hostess offered him food – it turned out that it was his ex-wife that offered him the food. He was so ashamed that he got into the chamber of the kitchen range and was burnt to death. The Jade Emperor learned the news and thought Zhang Shan was not so bad since he could change his mind. Therefore, the Jade Emperor gave him the title of Kitchen God since he died in the kitchen, and ordered him to report on 23rd and 24th of the 12th lunar month and come back on the New Year's Eve. Chinese people respected the Kitchen God because he would report to the Heaven. Therefore, folk China formed the custom of worshipping Kitchen God on 23rd or 24th of the 12th lunar month to pray for peace and prosperity in the coming year.
Date of Chinese Little New Year
In folk China, people have the tradition of "the third for official, the fourth for folk and the fifth for marine", which means the official celebrate the Chinese Little New Year on 23rd of the 12th lunar month, the people celebrate on 24th while the coastal or lakeside residents celebrate on 25th.
North had been the political center of China before the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279), so people still celebrate the Chinese Little New Year on 23rd of the 12th lunar month; South was far away from the political center, so people here still celebrate on 24th; coastal or lakeside residents preserve the boatman tradition of celebrating on 25th.
In Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Shanghai, both 24th of the 12th lunar month and the night before New Year's Eve are regarded as the Minor Chinese New Year. In Nanjing, the Lantern Festival falling on the 15th day of the 1st lunar month is treated as the Minor Chinese New Year. In Yunnan, Guizhou and Sichuan located in Southwest China and some Hui Nationality regions in North China, New Year's Eve is the Chinese Little New Year.
Sweeping dust is actually the thorough cleaning of house. North China celebrates the Chinese Little New Year on 23rd of the 12th lunar month while South China celebrates on 24th which is just 6 or 7 days before the Spring Festival. As a result, the preparation for Chinese New Year is more urgent and every family needs to clean up thoroughly for a clean New Year.
Worshipping Kitchen God
Worshipping Kitchen God is the most important activity on the Chinese Little New Year. According to folklore, the Kitchen God would report the Jade Emperor about the good and evil deeds of every family on 23rd of the 12th lunar month for the Emperor to reward and punish. While offering sacrifice to the Kitchen God, people place candy, water, beans and hay on the table in front of the Kitchen God image; the latter three items are for the mount of the Kitchen God. Also, the Northeast Candy (a kind of malt candy) shall be melted and applied to the lips of the Kitchen God to prevent him from telling something bad. In folk China, only men can worship the Kitchen God.
In Northern China: in addition to candy and pastry offered, people also have to replace the old image of Kitchen God with a new one.
In southern China: burning paper offerings is the main activity. Also, people have to offer the dishes to the Kitchen God before enjoying with family.
Making Chinese Paper Cuts for Window Decoration
Making paper cuts for window decoration is one of the important customs of Chinese Little New Year. It’s a preparation for the Spring Festival. The styles of the paper cutting varies including all kinds of animals, plants, flower, fruits etc. The aim of pasting paper-cuts on windows is for praying for good in the new year.
What to eat for Chinese Little New Year?
Eating dumplings: it seems that dumplings are essential to every festival in North China. Eating dumplings at the dinner of Chinese Little New Year is for the meaning of seeing off the Kitchen God. While offering up a sacrifice, people need to put the dumplings on the table neatly.
In southern China, cooking Nian Gao is the tradition of many places. Nian Gao is made of glutinous rice and other ingredients. As it shares a similar pronunciation with ‘年年高’in Chinese. Nian Nian Gao in Chinese also known as ''Year High Cake'', having the symbolic meaning of ''life and work getting higher or better year after year''.
Northeast Candy, a.k.a. Kitchen God Candy or Large Candy, is only available before and after the Chinese Little New Year. It is a kind of candy made from malt and millet by boiling, for the purpose of worshipping the Kitchen God. The milk white candy is flat and in strip shape, about three inches long and one inch wide. The new candy is crisp, tasty and viscous, with a special favor loved by everyone in Northeast China. Nowadays, the candy has become a daily food for the people rather than an offering to the Kitchen God.
Baked Wheat Cake
In addition to Kitchen God Candy, Baked Wheat Cake is also a special festival food for the Minor Chinese New Year. Every year on this day, the stalls dealing with Baked Wheat Cake in many cities are quite popular.
In North China, every family is busy about making steamed bread, reunion cake and peach-shaped birthday cake on the Minor Chinese New Year, for the meaning of family reunion and surplus year after year. It is quite complicated to make this kind of food, as you have to leaven, soften, knead and re-soften the dough before making a variety of shapes; then, the dough has to be softened again before steaming. The finished food is named ''floury flower'' which is tasty yet time-consuming.