Travel in Taiwan Festivals

Celebrating the Luner New Year
Tradition and Change in Taiwan

By Frances Siranovic, Photos by Sun Chih-hsiung


Scrolls bearing auspicious are ubiquitous New Year's decorations.

During new Year's amny people go to temples and shrines to pray for good fortune.

Lion dances are an exciting part of many New Year's celebrations.
Eery year the Lunar New Year holiday triggers one of the world's largest mass migrations as Chinese from all over the globe join with family and friends to celebrate the most joyous holiday of all. Airports, trains, bus stations, and roads are jammed and businesses close down for over a week as people take time off to feast and celebrate.

With restaurants closed and streets nearly empty of traffic--something hard to imagine in the midst of Taipei's nearly round-the-clock rush hour--Taipei resembles a ghost town during the first five days of the holiday as people stay at home or head south to visit their families living in small towns around the island. Apart from the fireworks, the unaccustomed hush seems broken by little more than the rattling of dice and mah jong pieces heard from apartment windows.

The start of the New Year holiday has always been a quiet time centering around family gatherings at home. Ancestors are often remembered with a setting of their own at the table, symbolizing togetherness of the generations, and special foods are prepared and eaten. New Year's Eve is customarily spent with the family, and New Year's Day in visiting friends. On the second day of the New Year, married daughters return home to visit their parents. Considered an unlucky day to go out, the third day is often spent at home as family members try out their New Year's luck playing mah jong and other games. The gods return from their celestial vacation on the fourth day, and on the fifth day businesses start to reopen and the normal routine of life begins to resume.

Changing Lifestyles


A multi-generational family toasts to health and properity in the new year.

Today, industrialization, affluence, and changing lifestyles are having a major impact on how New Year's is celebrated in Taiwan. On this crowded island, getting all the family together is no longer a simple matter. Often people do not get off work until New Year's Eve itself and then have to battle traffic back to their home towns. Stressed-out urbanites sometimes decide they are not up to a heavy round of visiting and celebrating, and instead go away for a relaxing vacation. With the difficulty involved in getting travel bookings, it can be a matter of leaving before the holiday or not at all.

Affluence is one reason for the heavy outbound holiday traffic at Chiang Kai-shek International Airport, which greatly exceeds the number of inbound flights. According to statistics from the Tourism Bureau, nearly 470,000 people went abroad during February of last year. This is second only to the number of people who left the country during July, the month of summer vacation. People today have more alternatives, and some choose to break with tradition and simply take a trip. On the other hand, as more people than ever are living abroad, a family group spread out around the globe may get together at a mutually convenient holiday resort. Or, given the difficulty of getting everybody together, sometimes just the immediate family may decide to get away from all the hassle and take a vacation break by themselves.

For others, the pressures of business, particularly for the small and medium-sized businesses so numerous in Taiwan, mean there are not many other opportunities to take time off. As Stanley Fang, owner of a printing firm, comments, "For people like myself, often the only time it's possible to close down the business and get away is New Year, when everything closes."

Changing times and the hectic pace of modern living have taken a toll on many time-honored New Year traditions that had their beginnings in a slower-paced agricultural society. Wearing new clothes during the New Year holiday, a tradition from ancient times to begin the year with a fresh start, while still a practice, is no longer a novelty. For Taiwanese of the present, wearing new clothes is a very common occurrence. Food preparation has become simpler, and foods that once were longed-for, once-a-year holiday treats, are now readily available all year round in supermarkets, a boon for busy families even as their uniqueness fades.

Spirit of New Year's Alive and Well
Are changing times eroding the traditions and family togetherness of this special time of year? Judging by the numbers of people who still line up each year at the Taipei Railway Station to book tickets home during New Year's, it would seem not. Traditions remain strongest in small towns, a big reason why so many people still look forward to joining their families there. A busy public administrator, Chang Chong-yueh is quite emphatic: "My family always looks forward to going back to Tainan for New Year's. It's a chance for us to enjoy the good weather and warm seas, the peace and quiet, as well as to visit the rest of the family for an old-fashioned celebration. We prefer to go away on vacation in the summertime."

Businessman, Alex Li recalls that New Year activities in his family have become simpler over the years as the children have grown up. "The special cakes, the firecrackers, dragon dances, visiting relatives, and staying up all night" of his childhood have partially given way to new activities like visiting scenic or historic spots and traveling abroad. Does he think the holiday is losing significance? Definitely not. "The Lunar New Year is something rooted in Chinese people's minds," he says. "It still is the number one holiday of the year."

Although World College of Journalism associate professor, Huang Shu-hwi, relishes memories of New Year celebrations with her family while growing up in Kaohsiung, spending the holiday far away from them during her seven years of studying abroad was not a problem. "With my parents telephoning me every week, I felt I had what I needed--their love and care." Reflecting on the evolution of New Year customs, she says that the biggest challenge today is to carry the holiday spirit over into everyday living all year long, regardless of changing traditions. Just a few days of mutual celebration are not really enough to bind the family together.

The spirit of New Year's is definitely alive and well in Taiwan. While the attachment to old holiday practices may be loosening, the shared memory of a common past going back over the centuries, together with bright hopes for the future, firmly remains.

Auspicious Dishes

In the past, eating the most extravagant meals of the year was a much-anticipated part of the New Year's celebration. Now, many hotels offer special banquets featuring a vast array of traditional dishes.

Some of the finer points of preparing special holiday treats may be fading as the older generation passes on, but not the exuberant array of auspicious-sounding food names that convey special wishes for blessings and good fortune in the year to come. Indeed, some foods which are New Year essentials are fairly ordinary in themselves. It's their names that make them special. Yu, or fish, sounds like "plenty," and chu, or orange, sounds like "lucky." Pineapple, feng li in Mandarin and ong lai in Taiwanese, sounds like the same phrase in both languages: "make a fortune."

For visitors, the unaccustomed calm of the New Year can provide a fine opportunity to explore at a relaxed pace, bearing in mind the scarcity of eating establishments that are open. With many restaurants closed, hotels in Taiwan frequently offer special New Year's dinners and holiday packages. Of course, these are mostly aimed at Western guests; it is still unusual for local families to have a New Year's dinner in a restaurant. The Lantern Festival, coming two weeks after the New Year, is a more lively and outgoing time for visitors and locals alike. It brings the New Year season to a close with extravagant lantern displays, and provides an occasion for more gatherings with family and friends.


Travel in Taiwan Festivals
Copyright 1995 Vision International Publishing Co.