Burns Night meets Chinese New Year: A Hybrid Celebration for New Beginnings

Once in a lifetime, or every 76 years to be precise, Chinese New Year coincides with Burns Night. As a Scottish company based in the heart of Edinburgh, and having recently returned from hosting an exhibition in Edinburgh’s sister city of Shenzhen, a UNESCO City of Design on the south-eastern coast of China, it seemed appropriate to delve into the respective histories of these iconic events as we approach their rare convergence. While Burns Night is a static event, the Chinese New Year varies from year to year with the phases of the moon, so that it is sometimes referred to as Lunar New Year. The fifteen-day festivities begin with the new moon and culminate with the full moon and the Festival of Lanterns.

With odes to Haggis, kilts, whiskey, and singing, Burns night celebrates the anniversary of the birth of Scotland’s famed poet Robert “Rabbie” Burns. Instigated a decade after the death of Robert Burns by a group of his friends, the traditional Burns Night Supper is an event replete with poetry and traditional Scottish fare. Today it is celebrated throughout the world, carried far and wide by a proud Scottish diaspora and literature lovers everywhere.

What began as an intimate affair to those with a personal memory of the bard, the event has developed a momentum all of its own, celebrating the legacy and literature of Robert Burns as well as the culture of Scotland. It is a participatory event, requiring all who attend to speak up and share toasts, musings, songs, readings of Burns’ work or even original compositions. Burns’ life may have been short (he died at just 37) but his legacy was immense (amounting to well over 500 songs and poems) and his light still shines bright.

The tone of every Burns Supper is different; some are stiff, others intellectual, some are relaxed and others raucous (no doubt stimulated by significant quantities of Scotland’s national beverage: whisky). The menu obligatorily centres on Haggis, Neaps and Tatties, and the host is expected to deliver the Address to a Haggis, celebrating this dish of which Burns was so fond. Traditionally a Burns Supper ends with a group rendition of Auld Lang Syne, which is also sung at the close of Hogmanay (Scotland’s New Year’s Eve celebration).

Chinese New Year is similarly marked with a special dinner, the New Year’s Eve Reunion Dinner or Nián yèfàn, a traditional meal that brought whole families together with a prescribed menu of dishes that would both in name and appearance invoke blessings for the year ahead and protect the family. For example, the fermented-rice-based buns ‘Fa Gao’ play on the notion of accumulating wealth (fa) and growth/height (gao). In terms of appearance, if the fermentation and steaming processes are executed correctly, these buns will rise and open up, a visual representation of their associated blessings.

According to myth, Nian refers to an ancient monster who prowled the earth one day a year, on the eve of the New Year, preying on humans and animals. For this reason, New Year’s Eve Reunion Dinners brought everyone home and kept them inside to protect the family from the creature, while feasting on dishes that had been prepared to ward off evil and invite blessings. Fireworks or fire-crackers, would be launched at midnight to scare off the monster. The emphasis on the colour red in decorations and clothing at the New Year is also intended to ward off Nian.

There is a poetic element to the New Year decorations as well, with couplets painted or pasted in red onto the gate posts either side of a home’s entrance. These brief poems protect against Nian but also against other demons. If a family member is unable to return home for the New Year then a space is left empty for them at the table. These homeward-bound pilgrimages are so much a part of Chinese culture even today that the second-longest national holiday of the year coincides with the Chinese New Year, offering a full week of Spring Holiday.

Tradition dictates the seating plan for the meal in accordance with Feng Shui:  four benches aligned in a square with the four compass points, with the oldest and highest-ranking family members on the north or on the east and west trajectories arrayed in order from oldest (at the northern end) to youngest (at the southern end). The south-oriented bench is for the youngest of the group. Throughout the New Year’s celebrations, there are many demonstrations of deference and respect to older family members, complemented by patronage of the elder generations for the younger. It is custom to bow to your elders, kneeling on the ground and touching your head to the floor. In return they gift parcels of money wrapped in red envelopes known as ‘red pockets’ which hark back to gifts of polo-shaped coins tied together with red ribbon in previous centuries, said to protect children.

2020 will be the year of the Rat.

Perhaps not a well-thought-of creature in most Western traditions, in Chinese culture the rat is seen as a harbinger of wealth and fertility. They are resourceful and clever. It is thought that the zodiac animals hark back to a time when animals were worshipped. Through the millennia they have evolved into the guards of the Jade Emperor (the ruler of the gods), and assigned an order based on how they placed in a race to sign up for this role within the Jade Emperor’s court. The rat won the race (by hitchhiking on the back of the Ox and jumping ahead of him at the last moment) and so the rat is first in the order of the twelve zodiac animals. As a result, 2020 is not only a new decade but also a fresh zodiac cycle, a time for new beginnings that will set the tone for the next twelve-year cycle.

So here’s to an exciting 2020 and new beginnings!