With the start of a new year, you may be casting your eye around the house and noticing neglected corners you’re just itching to clean. You’re not alone: the idea of cleaning house as a means of spiritual or physical renewal is one that resonates in many cultures around the world.
In particular, the act has special meaning for the Lunar New Year, starting this year on February 10, 2024 and falling under the sign of the dragon in the Chinese zodiac. Celebrated across Asia, Lunar New Year is particularly important in China, where celebrations span weeks and business often shut down for what is also commonly known as the Spring Festival. Cleaning one’s house is considered necessary preparation before the communal celebration, and a traditional way to clear out the old year’s detritus.
Clearing the Way for a Family Feast
Since Chinese New Year begins with a large reunion meal (tuan nian fan) to gather family at home the night before, it is traditional to start the year off with a clean house. Similar to many Chinese traditions, the act of cleaning is also based on a play on words, where there are similarities between the mandarin word for “dust” and “old”.
This activity may include several generations, depending on the family and circumstances, although some traditions have changed in recent years in how rigorously families follow them.
Timing is Key
All cleaning and shopping must be completed in the days leading up to the Lunar New Year, from the 23rd to the 29th of the 12th lunar month (these dates may vary by region in China).
On a very practical level, the frenzy of cleaning means that the house is nice and tidy for the reunion dinner on the night before Lunar New Year, or for guests to come and bai nein (visit their elders to pay their respects on the first day of the new year). Visiting friends and family continues throughout the first week, with gifts, fruit and red packages exchanged to celebrate Lunar New Year.
In terms of specifics with cleaning, sweeping in particular is symbolic of ridding the house of the bad luck of the past year and is done well before celebrations start. For traditionalists, bamboo leaves can be used to sweep the floor, although modern brooms are more common today. Conversely, on the first few days of the Lunar New Year, sweeping, taking out the garbage or even throwing out water should be avoided so as not to purge good fortune. To avoid temptation, brooms can even be hidden away. Mopping, scrubbing and washing are also to be avoided until after the first few days of the new year.
Time to Decorate
Once the house is clean, the fun begins. Colourful decorations, including gold printed symbols such as fu, meaning happiness or good fortune, or black-inked couplets on red paper expressing wishes for a better year are hung on the front door. Fruit trees such as kumquats are prized due to the wordplay around the name in Cantonese (gam gat sue), which is reminiscent of the words for gold and good luck and the kumquat’s golden hue and round shape resembling coins.
Inspired to sweep out some bad luck of your own? However you clean house before this Lunar New Year, here’s to a prosperous Year of the Dragon, and gung hei fat choi.
*Note: All Chinese names in this article are English phonetic translations of the Cantonese terms and may vary in terms of spelling.