Spring Festival planning actually starts as Christmas ends. That sad moment of shoving carefully boxed Christmas trees and garlands in the loft offset with bringing down another box, labelled “CNY DECS”. This box isn’t opened up immediately though, there’s a lot of real life things that need to happen, including cleaning and writing the inevitable articles for media who suddenly remember Chinese people exist. The box sits in a corner for a few weeks, saving us the effort of having to head to the loft a second time, but also taking the edge off the January blues, until we open it on Xiaonian.
Xiaonian, (Little New Year) or ‘Kitchen God Festival’, has a lot of meaning, around household gods, worthiness of the household, and so forth, but it really boils down to “this is when to get your cleaning done, decorations up, and maybe open a packet of egg rolls and list to whom you need to give hongbao.
This year Xiaonian is on our flower market day. This is very much a product of my hometown, Guangzhou, and the province of Guangdong. Flower markets are traditionally street-long open-air affairs where you can go buy your spring flowers (you can read more about them here). In London, one of the major public flower markets is on Columbia Road, and has been an attraction for Chinese immigrants and students looking to recreate their native experience for years.
My partner actually took me there the first time years ago. I was sad that I was unable to go to Guangzhou for the festival for the first time in ages, and they said they’d take me out to cheer me up, but wouldn’t say where. The market is not quite the same as the ones in Guangzhou, but it never could be. Among the roses, daffodils and more traditionally English flora, I saw the tall curling bamboos, splats of fuzzy catkins and blossom branches, even little potted trees with orange fruit. Not quite the heavy laden harvests of my hometown, but enough that I may have cried a little. It felt good carrying bunches of flowers and decorative plants home, even if it were in the chill of British winter, rather than the pleasant Guangzhou wintry sun. We had gone back every year, till the pandemic, and this is the first time we’ve felt ready to return.
With the flowers bought, and decorations down, it really does start to feel like spring festival. We clean, we put up the window flowers, and we make our own “year specific” decor, like the delicate papercuts from red craft paper, and these days, 3D printed figures and door charms. The shopping list is made, and parted out between what we can find at Western supermarkets, and what will need a run into a Chinese supermarket. This, we try to minimise. Not because we don’t want to support our local grocers, but because it feels like a gladiatorial battle.
I used to head into Chinatown, knowing I have the best chance of getting everything I need, including the candied fruits and roots to fill out Eight Treasure dishes, but the aisles would be heaving. Women playing tug of war with a particularly nice piece of fish, or an exasperated student having to explain what everything is to their friends who tagged along ‘to help’, all while being bombarded by the most cheery of new year music, waiting for them to play 祝福你. This is basically the Cantonese equivalent of “last Christmas”, but there’s no Whamageddon to be played, you WILL hear it multiple times. I’ll browse the new year cards. Because, even in this age of digital hongbao and new year stickers all over WeChat and Weibo, we have a few local Chinese friends, and it’s always nice to receive something in the post that’s not a bill. These days larger supermarkets in the suburbs near us are able to offer a very good range, and somewhat less hazardous shopping experience. With all the food in, we can begin to enjoy the festival itself, which I will talk about in part two.
Posted in Culture and tagged china, Chinese, Chinese New Year, culture, customs, Spring Festival, tradition