I remember once, when I was young, I had asked our Chinese teacher why we must always, always wear red during the Lunar New Year. ‘Why must everything be in red, ma’am?’
The teacher chuckles, “You must wear red, or else—“ she tightens her tone for emphasis, “—the demon, named Nian, will come after you.”
There is a classic story about the origins of the Lunar New Year: How a monster called Nian descends from the mountains to terrorize villagers every new year, devouring livestock and destroying families. Only through the power of loud noises and the color red, Nian’s biggest fears, could the villagers fight-off this demonic pest.
Although a childhood myth, it is only recently that I realized how the character of Nian, the demon’s name, is the same character for “year” in the Chinese language. The revelation has since given me a better appreciation of the story, and why red was the most powerful color to the Chinese culture.
Unlike Western literature, which traditionally associated red to danger or temptations (with bloody swords, and rouged lips of femme fatale), Asian cultures believed red was the color of life, happiness and fortune. Red was the color of the fire that kept them warm; Red was the life in their veins, and it is even believed that the threads of fate, that connects people to each other as well as their destinies, is of the same color.
No doubt during these fifteen days, your eyes would be bombarded with more red than a field of roses. It paints even the light at night, when our round lanterns hang on the walls. It decorates our doors and tables with meticulously wrapped treats, and best of all, it packages money we gift—the ultimate gesture of sharing our fortune with each other. Red calls your attention, lest you forget.
Perhaps this, above all, is the message of red to the Lunar New Year. Time is a swift, merciless force that scares us all with uncertainty, with age and fear. Yet, rather than succumb to our demons, ‘better to surround ourselves with red—a reminder of the life we have, the blessings we share, and the company we are with.