The Spring Festival 春节 is the most important festival in China. People living away from home return to their respective hometowns and spend the holiday with their family, sort of like Thanksgiving or Christmas in the West. It falls on the first day of the first lunar month, often a month after the regular New Year. Chinese New Year is highlighted by traditions which have been in place since the Shang Dynasty, many of which are still followed today.
Perhaps the jolliest of these traditions is the setting off of fireworks and firecrackers. The time I've been here has consisted of perpetual bursts of color and gunshot-like sounds coming from near and far. A long time ago, people set off firecrackers and launched fireworks to scare away the Nian（年), a mythical beast that appeared on New Year's Eve. Today, this tradition brings merriment to the Chinese as they gather together as a family to color up the sky. The red-colored lanterns that inundate the city during the holiday were also used as a means to drive away the Nian（年), and have now become a symbol of Chinese culture.
On the morning after my arrival, my host sister, her mom, and I joined two other exchange students and their respective families at 庙会. The celebration was a sort of fair complete with market stalls, street food, and rigged games. We walked around all morning, bought a few things, ate some unrecognizable food, and played to lose. Yesterday, on the second day of the new year, my host family and I went to 圆明园, or the Old Summer Palace. The environment was very similar to 庙会's except multiplied by ten. The amount of people also increased from too many to beyond imaginable.
We also went ice skating at 圆明园, except it wasn't really ice skating: people were sliding around in chairs! The 'ice rink' was a frozen lake, the surface of which was holey and hard to slide through. I was not prepared to ice skate, so the cold sipped through my boots until I could no longer feel my toes. After 40 minutes of struggling through the ice, we walked out. The feeling finally returned to my toes a few minutes later.
Despite many warnings, I could not help but try some street food. You have to be really careful when eating street food in China, because you don't know where the ingredients came from, weather the food was washed, or how clean the stand is. Thankfully, I did not get sick on either day.
Chinese New Year is very important. Stores are closed down, and people are given long vacations to visit their families. It has been really interesting to welcome the year of the horse, since it is something I have never had the chance to do before. Here are some pictures from the decorations we put up in the house. The character 福 (fu), which means blessing, is a must. Usually drawn on red paper, it can be hung up upside down because the Chinese for 'reversed fu' is homophonic with 'fu comes'. Red lanterns, couplets, and fish decorations, the last of which is meant to bring luck, are also displayed around the house.
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On a different note, look at one of the prizes at the fair: