After fifteen days of the Lunar New Year celebration, Chinese families would get together for the last time before wishing the festival goodbye. This is known as ‘Chap Goh Mei’, Hokkien for ‘the fifteenth night’.
Marking the end of a celebration
chap Goh Mei, also known as the Lantern Festival — not to be confused with the Mid-Autumn’s Lantern Festival — is an exceptionally auspicious day for the Chinese as it falls on the first full moon of the year. The day is considered as a day of prayers, hopes and wishes.
In China, Chap Goh Mei is known as ‘Yuan Xiao Jie’, as the first month of the lunar calendar is known as ‘Yuan’ and the night is called ‘Xiao’. Meanwhile, the name Lantern Festival (Deng Jie) was derived from the main attraction of the festival, the bright red lanterns.
The legend behind Lantern Festival
According to the book “Chinese Auspicious Culture” published by Asiapac Books Singapore, the Lantern Festival was first held during the reign of Emperor Wu Di of the Han Dynasty.
It was said that a palace official named Dongfang Shuo saw a depressed palace lady named Yuan Xiao who was about to jump into a well in a suicide attempt as she could not meet her parents ever since she entered the palace.
Dongfang then came out with a plan and pretended to be a fortune teller spreading bad news that the God of Fire will burn the streets of Chang’an. Perturbed by the rumour, Emperor Wu Di sought the help of Dongfang who advised the emperor to send out a decree towards the whole capital.
Every person in the capital must make lanterns and light them up the night before the slated visit of the fire god. It was a deception to show that the place was already burning. That night, everyone went out to the streets to watch the brightly lit lantern display. Yuan Xiao got the opportunity to meet her parents and sister on that very same night.
On this particular first full moon of the year, Yuan Xiao’s wish for a reunion was fulfilled. Since then, it has been a custom to pray for a family reunion during Lantern Festival.
Chinese Valentine’s Night
The fifteenth night was also known as the night of courtship and matchmaking. As young maidens were not allowed to stroll the streets, however, they would make their way to temples, finely dressed with the hopes of finding a suitor.
According to a legend, the matchmaker sent from the moon would tie red strings of destiny around the fated couples. Though the rule disallowing young maidens to walk the street is considered as not relevant at this time and age, the tradition continues with the act of throwing tangerines into a river or sea.
In Malaysia, the activity is very popular. Single ladies would throw oranges with their phone numbers into the river, hoping that single men would pick them up. It is said if an orange is picked up, it means that the person who threw it would be able to find a good spouse.
While it is now part of the auspicious celebration, interestingly, the origin of the practice is not from China. It can be traced back in Penang at the end of the 19th century, where a large crowd would gather at the esplanade in search of fated love.
The last day of celebration
For many, Chap Goh Mei marks the end of a celebration. The fireworks display will be as merry and loud as the first day of the Chinese New Year, and households will be abuzz with conversations and laughter before families depart back home.
While a reunion can happen 365 days a year, it is much more meaningful during festive seasons. With dining tables filled with food, and the lazy susan spins for each family member, it is always a fond memory to reminisce upon.
As a young girl of mixed heritage, I spent a few of my Chap Goh Mei celebrations with my maternal auntie. As a Foochow, the long-life noodle — mee sua — is a must-have on the auspicious day. It is also the last day that new year snacks will be served.
My father, a Youtube savvy man would make use of the music platform to play Chinese New Year songs that would echo the whole house. When I was younger, he would purchase CDs of different seasons to listen to. Now, he plays the familiar tune of ‘Tong Tong Chiang’ for the last time on Chap Goh Mei, before our next celebration — Gawai Dayak — where he will put on a different tune to get the family in the mood for merrymaking.