No take-out menu this week, as tomorrow is the “Small New Year” or 小年 (Xiao Nian) in the Chinese lunar calendar and we will send off our Kitchen God, 灶王爷 (Zào Wángye), to Heaven.
The Kitchen God protects the family’s welfare as well as the kitchen, and is an important deity where the family’s fortunes are concerned. Throughout the year, he “sits” in front of the stove and keeps a tab on what the households get up to, and then reports their good deeds and misadventures back to the Jade Emperor 玉皇大帝 (Yùhuángdàdì). Depending on what’s in the dossier, the Jade Emperor will dish out rewards or punishments to the families accordingly. Since the Kitchen God’s words carry all the weight on a family’s fortune in the coming year, people take the farewell ceremony seriously.
When I was growing up, my grandmother would light incense sticks and place them on a shelf directly above our stove, together with sweets, pastries, oranges and a red paper-horse as an offering. Back then, we didn’t have a picture or statue of the Kitchen God in our house, so I had to imagine this deity sitting “up there”. My grandparents would plead with him to “say more good things [to Jade Emperor], and do not say bad things”.
To make his journey back comfortable and speedy, my grandmother made the red paper-horse for his ride, and would burn it at the end of her ceremony to signify the Kitchen God’s departure. The sweets are offered with ulterior motives: eating something sweet can make him “honey-lipped” (i.e., it might make him say good things); and the sweets will hopefully stick the Kitchen God’s lips together and prevent him from saying too much especially anything bad!
Aside from buttering up the Kitchen God, there are other activities on the Small New Year that mark the start of the Chinese New Year celebrations. An end-of-year cleaning takes place in all households to make the house sparkling clean, so that they can 除旧迎新 (get rid of the old and welcome the new). After the cleaning, it is time to put up New Year decorations: red paper cuttings to decorate the window, spring scrolls for the doors, and shop for specialty foods either as gifts or for eating.
This is also the time to get your hair cut to avoid having to go to the hairdressers during the 15 days of the New Year celebration. It is considered bad luck and signifies cutting off good luck. Hmm, time to get the boys’ hair cut this week!