Chinese New Year at Local Temples
Chinese New Year is arguably one of the most exciting festivals for those residing in nations such as Taiwan, Hong Kong, and PRC. Also known as the “Spring Festival”, foreign visitors may find this period to be a bit of an inconvenience, since the majority of shops and facilities remain closed for several days as people travel home to be with their family.
In the case of Taiwan, the period before the Chinese New Year is usually the preparation period, marked by temporary street fairs held specifically to provide holiday goods (candies, ingredients for New Year’s Eve dinner, gifts, etc.) The Chinese New Year street bazaars are usually held at the older neighborhoods, with the entire street full of hawkers offering samples of free food and snacks, hoping to entice pedestrians to make some purchases. Usually, by the time you travel from one end of the market to the other, you’re most likely full from the bits and pieces you collected from the random stalls.
Now, the best part of the holiday events begins on the eve of Chinese New Year, also known as Chu-shi. The standard practice is to have dinner with the entire family (yes, adults do take trains or drive for hours to have dinner with their parents who might be living in the countryside), so around dinner time on this day the street is pretty much deserted. For the kids, the highlight comes after dinner, when they receive the red envelopes stuffed with cash from the older members of the house.
Even today, many people abide by customs and head for the local temples after dinner. One of the most well-known practice is “grabbing the first incense” at midnight.
Many of you might ask what the practice of “grabbing (inserting, to be exact) the first incense” is. According to tradition, individuals who get to insert the first incense into the incense burner of the temple will have good luck for the entire year. While not every temple abide by this tradition, there’s usually some kind of activity (prayer chanting or similar ceremonies) near midnight, so people tend to take these event as a cut-off point, and go for the incense the moment after such ceremony ends.
In the case of Xintian Temple (one of the famous temples in Taipei dedicated to the worship of Guang Gong), the tradition came about as an accident. On Chinese New Year’s eve, the temple staff would usually clear the crowd out of the center court to prepare for a religious ceremony at midnight. Once the ceremony concludes, it’s hard to suppress the urge of believers to charge to the center incense burner to throw in their incense and pray. Again, the temple authority keeps saying that any incense lit on the day of Chinese New Year can be regarded as the “first incense,” but people being what they are… there’s bound to be a “race” right after the temple doors close.
So that’s some Chinese New Years customs for readers out there. Next time you have a chance to be in Taipei (or any town around Taiwan), make sure to check out the temples. Unlike the shopping mall and business districts, they’ll be bustling with activities and tourists are very likely to end up with many classical shots.
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