Today (January 17th) is the ‘Little Chinese New Year‘ – also known as the Kitchen God Festival (北方小年)! It’s the day to start the preparations for the Chinese New Year and the lunar festival.
There are two versions of the Chinese holiday:
- 北方小年 or Běifāng xiǎo nián which represents the ‘Little Year’ to the north. Celebrated on January 17, 2020.
- 南方小年 or Nánfāng xiǎo nián which represents the ‘Little Year’ to the south. Celebrated on January 18, 2020.
*Based on students’ responses, it appears there is a difference in when the holiday is celebrated based on geographic location. Same holiday, different days.
The Stove-top Origins
In ancient Chinese culture and heritage, the stove was a very important part of the family’s wealth. Closely related to signs of prosperity and unity.
The home to house the stove and food to cook within were signs of abundance and wealth. While the family who ate food produced in the same oven represented a family at peace. When a younger son started his own family line, he would produce his own stove and carefully shift coals over to show that his household now stood independent. (Source)
It is little surprise then that myths surrounding a kitchen god formed.
The Legend Begins
The stories vary, but the most popular version is one which started in the BC era. There once was a man named Zao Jun (灶君) who for some reason did wrong by his wife. Some say he had an affair with a younger woman, other that he was poor and sold his wife to another man in marriage.
Whatever the reason, he then fell into greater poverty and misery. Wandering earth, he happened upon his wife again in later years and confessed his regret and sorrow at his past actions. A good cook and virtuous woman, his wife forgave him and offered him some food and aid.
Unfortunately, he is either overwhelmed with guilt at her kindness or misunderstands her good intentions (depends on the version) and commits suicide in grief. The heavens take pity on the poor man and turn him into a kitchen god where he is reunited with his wife.
The Current Myth
Modern versions of the Chinese tradition hold that each home hosts their own ‘Kitchen God’ who sits watch over the family throughout the year. He is assisted by his wife who keeps a careful written record of the family’s good and bad deeds. He and his wife may even by represented with a portrait or painting of his depiction placed in the kitchen where he keeps his watchful eye.
Then, during the week before the new year, the kitchen god and his wife take their account back to the immortal world. There he gives his report to the Jade Emperor who will pass judgment and issue corresponding rewards or punishments to the family.
The goal is to receive blessings, and make a good start for next year. It’s a time of reconciling, cleaning the house, and putting old misdeeds and history aside. A time to get everything ready for the new year to come.
OUT WITH THE OLD, IN WITH THE NEW
The Holiday Today
Even families who don’t believe in the legend anymore still participate in the fun traditions surrounding it. Some of the fun activities include:
- Getting a hair cut ~ the young guys are out with dapper style in their new do’s.
- Getting new clothes and putting aside worn out older sets. Time to clean out the closet!
- Take down old decorations and put up new ones. In China, many of the new year decorations are left up all year long – particularly those on the doors and the Chinese lanterns hanging everywhere.
- This includes taking down the old picture of the kitchen god, burning it, and replacing it with a new portrait.
- Burn sacrifices, money, and foods for the ancestors & family gods in hopes that they will intervene with the heavens and help spread good stories about the family. Lots of burning in the streets right now up north.
- Eating homemade dumplings
- Giving the house a thorough scrubbing
- Shoot fireworks to help encourage him on his way!
One of our favorites comes from a student who shared that many people will eat sticky maltose-based candies and offer them as sacrifices. Apparently their hope is to either bribe the kitchen god with sweets or stick the mouth shut of his wife because she’s too gossipy.
Either way, we’re always in where candy is involved!
It’s mostly a kind of ‘spring cleaning’ festival, but be careful – don’t clean on the first of the holiday or you’ll offend the kitchen god! As one student put it ‘don’t throw out the rubbish or he’ll think you see him as rubbish’. So get your cleaning in now!