If there’s an animal the Chinese venerate more than any other, it’s the dragon. In ancient China, only the Emperor could wear such an emblem of supreme power; it was a capital offence even to be found with the symbol of a dragon on your person. In western folklore the dragon is a frightening and dangerous monster; intelligent, but cruel and destructive. In China however, the dragon is a noble creature of the heavens and even kind to humans; as this popular folk tale will tell.
A long time ago when there were no rivers but only the vast eastern sea, where dwelled four great dragons; the Long Dragon, the Yellow Dragon, the Black Dragon and the Pearl Dragon. The dragons were boisterous creatures and the Jade Emperor had long bade them out of his court. They loved to play among the clouds and paid little attention to the people living far below them, until one day they saw a spiral of fragrant smoke emerge from between the clouds.
Chinese New Year is more commonly known as Chūn Jié [春节] or ‘Spring Festival’ in China. As in other cultures, the festival celebrates the declining of winter and the coming of Spring’s warmer weather. In China’s more remote places and especially in ancient times, the winter weather was very harsh and villages could be cut off for weeks from the rest of the country.
There was once a village in ancient China which was ravaged by a great beast, called the Nian. On the first day of every new year it would come to the village, destroying houses and devouring livestock, crops and even people; especially children.
“On the first day of Christmas my true love sent to me
a partridge in a pear tree.”
So goes the first verse from one of England’s most well-known carols, the Twelve Days of Christmas. The twelve days of Christmas begin on St. Stephen’s Day (26th December) and continue until Twelfth Night; the evening of the 5th January and the night before Epiphany. Epiphany (6th January) celebrates the coming of the Magi and marks the end of the Christmas season, a tradition dating from medieval times.
You may be surprised to learn that the Twelve Days of Christmas was first written down in 1780. It was included in a children’s book named Mirth Without Mischief, and probably intended as a memory forfeit game to be played on Twelfth Night. The players would each recite a verse from memory and the first to make a mistake would be subject to a forfeit.