Why do we call it “Spring Festival”?
For most of us 春节 chunjie or “Spring Festival” is an opportunity to enjoy a delicate mix of high-proof alcohol and shoddily made explosives. There are also dumplings and television specials so neutered they make the Lawrence Welk show look like “Kid Rock Night” at Cheetah’s.
Speaking of neutered, has there ever been a blander term than “Spring Festival”? What the hell does it even mean? It’s held in the middle of winter. In North China that means we celebrate spring by huddling around in weather that is so goddamn frigid the sheep start voluntarily walking up to chuanr guys and saying, “Seriously fucker, let’s just do this.”
For thousands of years it was simply the New Year, at least according to the moon. So what changed?
Well, the calendar for one. On January 1, 1912 Sun Yat-sen declared the founding of the Republic of China. One of the perks which carried over from the old imperial era was that the founder of a new government gets to decide on the calendar. Sun chose the Gregorian calendar and to avoid any confusion declared January 1 “New Year’s Day. This required a re-branding of the Lunar New Year as something else and “Spring Festival” was born. Of course by the time Spring Festival 1912 rolled around Sun had already traded the presidency to Yuan Shikai for a bag of dumplings and a vague promise that Yuan “would honor the democratic process or some shit like that.”
In 1928 Chiang Kai-shek decided to take it a step further and tried to sync the lunar and solar New Year holidays, declaring that henceforth Chinese New Year/Spring Festival would be held on January 1. This was another one of Chiang’s brilliant “But that’s the way they do it in Japan” ideas. Japan still does it, in China it lasted a year. Spring Festival 1929 was held according to the Lunar Calendar.
When the PRC was established in 1949, Mao decided to keep the Gregorian calendar and with it the name “Spring Festival” to refer to the Lunar New Year. Over time however many of the more colorful customs associated with Lunar New Year such as the burning of the Kitchen God or visiting a temple to pray for luck and fortune gradually succumbed to government campaigns against feudal superstition.
During the Lunar New Year 1967, the first “Spring Festival” of the Cultural Revolution era, workers were encouraged to turn in their train tickets and celebrate with overtime. Village loudspeakers blared messages telling farmers that nothing said “New Year spirit” like digging irrigation ditches. For the next thirteen years, few dared to openly celebrate the Lunar New Year. Instead people enjoyed new traditions like “turning in your neighbors for thinking mean things about Mao” and “Whack a Teacher with a 2×4.” Good times!
In 1979 an op-ed appeared in the People’s Daily asking “Where is Spring Festival?” The next year the fireworks returned. In 1983, the first 春节晚会 Spring Festival Gala debuted on CCTV and had people immediately wishing for a return of the Cultural Revolution. Two hours into the first broadcast Deng Pufang tried to throw himself out of a window.
Stupid name or not, it is a special time. Over the next few days, families will gather to eat, drink and remind everyone of all the horrible shit they’ve done to each other over the past year. Then the whole family heads outside to toss lit firecrackers at loved ones.
I love it. Even if spring still feels like it’s months away.