Chinese and Jews. A huge group of people from the Far East and a tiny group of people from the Middle East. One group is mostly associated with an ancient religion and thick beards while the other is associated with ancient traditions and patchy beards. How much can their holidays possibly have in common? More than you might think.
Let’s take two prominent holidays – Chinese New Year and Passover. One is a festival held to welcome the New Year, while the other is a holiday held to commemorate the Exodus and how Hebrew slaves successfully fled Egypt to become free men and women. It doesn’t get more different than that.
The name Passover, much like the Hebrew name Pesach, derives from the act of passing over. In the tenth plague of Egypt god and his angels passed over the houses of the Israelites and didn’t kill their first-born. But Passover has another name in Hebrew – Chag Ha’aviv. The meaning of this name is Spring Holiday or Spring Festival, after the season it falls on.
Spring Festival is also the modern name of the Chinese New Year. It was established by the newly founded Republic of China after 1911 to differentiate it from the Western New Year of the Gregorian calendar. That explains why if you are in northern China, you celebrate the “Spring Festival” in late January when winter is still in full throttle.
Time of Year
The Chinese New Year marks the beginning of a new year in the Chinese calendar, so it’s no surprise it fall on the first month of the year.
Passover however, is celebrated more than six months after the beginning of a new Jewish Year, known as Rosh Hashanah, which usually occurs around late September or early October. The Jewish date of Passover is the 15th of the month of Nisan and it typically falls on March or April. In the Torah Nisan is said to be the “head of the months and the first among the months of the year”. The Hebrew word for head is Rosh (ראש) and it signifies commencement like in Rosh Hashanah, or in ראשון (Rishon) – the Hebrew word for first, and בראשית – the Hebrew name for the Book of Genesis. There’s been a long debate in the Jewish clergy and in fact in many ancient Jewish traditions and customs Nisan is still regarded as the beginning of the year or where some reckonings start. The name Nisan derives from the Acadian word for bud (Nitzan in Hebrew) so even though it has lost the New Year to another month, you still cannot take the sense of birth and beginning away from it. By the way, the origin of Chinese character for the word year ‘年’ (nián) is quite similar. It’s a ripe stalk of wheat ready for the harvest.
Red on Doors
One of the Chinese traditions for the New Year is to hang a red sign on the door with the character 福 (blessing, happiness or good fortune) on it. There’s no need to explain why this character has been chosen, but what about the color? Why red of all colors? The reason lies in Chinese folklore and a mythical creature called Nian (年 – that’s right, his name is year). As the story goes, every year comes New Year Eve, Nian comes out of his lair deep in the mountains for his annual “search and destroy” mission and causes as much trouble as possible to poor and innocent farmers. It was said that Nian was afraid of two things – loud noise and the color red. Hence the fire crackers, drums, red lanterns and door signs on New Year’s Celebrations. Last year Nian was the star of a series of Chinese McDonald’s commercial if you want to see how the beast looks like.
In the tale of Passover, right before the plague of the first-born, the Israelites were instructed to smear the blood of a lamb on the doorposts and lintel of the main entrance of their house to keep the angel of death from entering the house and taking the life of their first-born child. The color red marked the house of faithful Jews and thus protected them from harm. Though marking the doors red with the blood of a lamb was a one-time deal and has not been practice ever since, it is still commemorated in the Passover sacrifice. Ironically, this tradition has become a source of many blood-libels and brought a lot of pain and suffering to the Jewish people.
In northern China it is customary to eat dumplings on New Year’s Eve. If you want to know why click here.
For many Jews (mostly Ashkenazi-Jews), a type of soup dumplings known as knaidel, is an integral part of the Seder – the traditional meal of Passover’s Eve.
Low Bread and High Cakes
One thing all practicing Jews must eat during Passover is the Matzo-bread. Matzo is unleavened bread which looks, feels and tastes exactly like cardboard. The reason Jews eat this bread is because that’s the only kind of bread the Israelites could prepare before fleeing from Egypt. Everything was done is such a haste they didn’t have time to wait for the dough to rise before baking it.
In the south of China it is customary to eat glutinous rice cakes called 年糕 (nián gāo). That’s because the character 糕 which means cake sounds exactly like the character 高 which means high or tall, so eating this cake is a way to wish people to reach new heights and to have a prosperous year.
The tradition of spring cleaning is found in many different cultures all around the world. In both the Chinese New Year and Passover spring cleaning is an essential part of the preparations. In Chinese culture the dedicated day for the spring cleaning is the 24th day in the month of 腊 (là) – the last month in the Chinese lunar calendar.
For the Jews there is no specific day for the cleaning (it usually takes more than one day) but you have to make sure you got rid of every little remnant of leavened food (chametz) before the holiday begins.
Ambitious Construction Projects in Africa on Hold
According to the Bible, it was the Hebrew slaves who built the pyramids for the pharaohs. It doesn’t say what happened in Egypt after they’d left but it’s quite safe to assume that construction was on hold for a while.
Today construction in Africa is at full speed, and the reason for that is mainly one country – China. So comes Chinese New Year construction work comes to a halt or (since it’s China we are talking about) significantly slows down.
People Migrating Back Home in Great Numbers
It’s hard to say how many people actually took part in the exodus and how long it took. The bible counts 600,000 able men and their entire households who wondered the desert for 40 years, but that number raises almost as many questions as the parting of the sea. Nonetheless, no matter how great that number was, it’s still far less than the number of people who migrate back home to celebrate the New Year with their family. They are counted in hundreds of millions.
Those people are part of a phenomenon called 春运 (chūn yùn – spring transport) which the increased demand of public transportation before, during and after Spring Festival. In those 40 days things get a little crazy and a successful journey home is nothing short of a miracle.
Happy New Year!!! 新年快乐！！！