Spring Festival, also know as Chinese New Year, is the biggest holiday in Chinese culture. I can now safely say that nothing can prepare you for the living hyperbole that is Spring Festival in Beijing.
The festivities began around January 18, when I started hearing the odd firecracker in my neighborhood. Within a few days, I started hearing fireworks in the distance. January 25 was the big night for the festival so far. You can think of it as a sort of Thanksgiving-July 4th combination, then multiply that times about 20. On that night, everyone traditionally eats a ridiculously large amount of food, rests, gets drunk, eats more, and then at midnight, sets off a ridiculous amount of fireworks, firecrackers, and anything else loud/flammable.
Kieran and I were invited to the home of a wonderful family friend in Beijing for a real Spring Festival in a Chinese home. Grace, who is my “Beijing mom,” and her mother, made us a huge meal with an overwhelming number of courses. Of course, being Chinese, they hardly touched it, but kept urging us on “eat, eat, eat, EAT! You’re too thin!”
After dinner, we settled in to watch the yearly Spring Festival program on TV. It was a variety show, complete with comedy routines, skits about the Olympics, songs and magic performances. While we watched, Grace taught us how to make dumplings, Jiaozi. Jiaozi is to Spring Festival as Turkey is to Thanksgiving, so although we were already bursting with full bellies, we couldn’t turn them down. I know everyone will be shocked to hear this, but I actually stopped eating before all my dumplings were gone. I was stopped by the remembrance of a certain friend — who will remain nameless — who actually threw up once from eating way too much. Only that unpleasant memory could get between me and delicious, delicious jiaozi.
At midnight, every family sets off their entire arsenal of fireworks. Unlike Fourth of July, the city does not have a public display, and fireworks are set off willy-nilly in the streets and apartment courtyards — despite a law against setting them off within the city. Even on the fifteenth floor, fireworks were exploding flush with Grace’s windows and bits were pinging against the glass. Naturally, we brought our own small stash of firecrackers down to the street and joined in. Unlike the more daring, we lit our firecracker strand and promptly ran a safe distance to watch the mayhem. Fireworks were going off all around us, and we all were hit with little bits of falling debris. It was so loud you couldn’t hear any volume of shouting, and there was a great danger of being accidentally lit on fire by those setting off their arsenal. After about half an hour we retreated to the safety of Grace’s apartment and watched as fireworks continued exploding all over the city, literally unabated until at least 2 a.m.
I had been hearing complaints and warning from foreigners for a few weeks about the noise and nuisance of New Year’s, but when it came to the actual holiday, I felt completely different. Spending the holidays with Grace made me feel like it was my holiday too, and I loved the excitement and chaos of the impromptu fireworks shows around town. There were as many different kinds of fireworks as a professional display — reds, greens, purples, blues, dazzling whites, swirly ones that weave like dragons on the ascent, whistlers, star bursts, falling stars, weeping willows, bottle rockets, sparklers, poppers, Roman candles and even (rumored) smiley faces. It was an exhilarating and beautiful way to express the joy of a new beginning, and one I won’t soon forget.
Nothing can really convey the sheer size of the celebration, but video is on the way!
As I’m writing this about a week later, fireworks are still being set off at all hours of the day, and the courtyard of my apartment building is covered in red cardboard fireworks packaging — and I totally love it. It’s sort of like living in a constant, lawless symphony of percussion, color and light. Spring Festival will continue for the next week or so, and I’m excited to see what else will happen.