Chinese New Year is a very colorful time in Chinese households. And a very busy time. Houses are cleaned, fences mended, debts are paid, and the color red, representing wealth and happiness, features prominently in clothing and celebratory decorations placed throughout the house. Gifts of flowers, citrus fruits, candy and of course TEA figure prominently in the holiday.
In the spirit of happiness and wealth, red envelopes containing money are given to children ( or the unmarried ) by parents and elders. Colorful dragon parades bring crowds of Chinese and non-Chinese revelers into Chinese communities from New York to San Francisco. New Year parades feature lion dancers and large paper dragons that slither through the streets to the sounds of drums, bells and chimes. A host of fireworks and an ocean of bobbing lanterns ( meant to scare away the evil spirits ) keep the crowd cheering happily and adds to the festive occasion.
Special celebratory menus are offered in restauants, most of whom chalk up their busiest days of the year during the 15 days of Chinese New Year. In homes, families plan elaborate multi-coursed banquet meals for loved ones and friends. Foods are selected for their ability to bring good luck, propserity and longevity in the New Year.
But before the new year festivities can begin, the house must be cleaned and homage must be paid to the Kitchen God or Stove God ( known as Zao Jun or Zao Shen ) a guardian deity who evolved from Zhu Rong, the ancient Fire God, once stoves became commonplace in Chinese kitchens.
Traditional Chinese families live by a complex religiuos belief system, and in order to fare well in this life, they enlist the help of various deities and guardian figures.
The Kitchen God oversees every Chinese kitchen. His role is to protect the family in a variety of ways – a paper image of him resides near the back of every stove, and a small altar is made for seasonal food offerings, burning incense and candles.
Each year, about one week before the start of the New Year celebrations, the image of the Kitchen God is taken down and burned. By doing this, the spirit of the Kitchen God is released from the earth to make his annual ascent to Heaven to report to the Jade Emperor on the conduct of the family during the past year
Once in Heaven, the words of the Kitchen God influences the amount of prosperity and abundance that each family will have bestowed on them in the new year. In order to ensure that the Kitchen God speaks sweetly of the family, offerings of incense and bowls of ‘sweet treats’ such as ripe melons, honey, glutinous cakes, and sugar candies are presented for his delight before his image is burned and his journey begins.
Gold and silver ‘ingots’ fashioned from paper are also offered, and little paper-mache sedan chairs are sometimes provided to offer comfort on the journey to Heaven.
To welcome the return of the Kitchen God to the family for the new year, a fresh paper image of him is hung where the old one had been. Each family hopes for the same thing from the Kitchen God – abundant food, good harvests and good health. In Heaven good deeds are reported, on earth their safety is ensured.
On our recent trip to San Francisco, Bob and I combed Chinatown looking for a Kitchen God for our kitchen. To be honest, we did not know exactly what he should look like, or what we would find to purchase. perhaps, we wondered, if a Kitchen God was something that one inherited, and not something simply purchased.
So we began asking in all of the shops we stopped in. To our surprise, many of the people in the shops did not know where we could purchase a Kitchen God. But finally, someone directed us to a shop on Pacific Avenue ( turn right off Grant and head for the housewares-looking place down on the left. ) This seemed an unlikely place to us, but a helpful clerk steered us to a section of the store where they stocked numerous packets to cover all of life’s needs. We scooped up a few Kitchen Gods to give to friends and for good luck we grabbed a Interior Door God and a House God, too.
Back home, we carefully opened our Kitchen God packet and were amazed at how many pieces of paper it contained. Most of the sheets were printed with Chinese characters, symbols and figures. We had large yellow sheets, medium-sized red sheets, long red strips, gold printed squares, streamers, paper-cut banners, candles and stick incense, and a little paper bowl to fill with dry rice grains. Stand the candles and incense sticks up in this bowl and one has an instant alter.
But nowhere was there the image of the Kitchen God that we were expecting to find – manybe one needs a more expensive kit – but we had fun looking at everything and trying to piece it together. We did find this:
which we think is a simple plaque that says ‘ Kitchen God. ‘ So we hung our plaque, made the alter, and hope that our humble attempt to please the Kitchen God brings us a new year of good luck and prosperity !