Traditionally, Chinese society has always used a lunar calendar (based on the phases of the moon). The biggest holidays celebrate the changing of the seasons, revealing China’s ancient agrarian roots.
Because most major festivals are timed by the traditional calendar, the dates that they fall on according to the Western, solar, calendar vary from year to year. Some holidays, however, have come to be associated with the Western calendar and occur on the same predictable date.
Some holidays may be of little interest to non-Taiwanese. Unless you have an ancestor who died and was buried in Taiwan, for example, you probably won’t find yourself directly participating in Tomb Sweeping Day. But many holidays are spectacular public events that can easily engage and fascinate visitors from abroad.
Some of the more interesting occasions you might want to observe:
Chinese New Year – The biggest event on the Taiwanese calendar, like everywhere else in the Chinese world, is the New Year, which marks the beginning of spring. It is a festival of renewal, in preparation for which families clean their houses top to bottom and cook elaborate feasts. It is also very important to settle all personal debts before the end of the year. On New Year’s Eve, families gather together at home, eat heartily and let loose a lot of firecrackers. Children and elders receive gifts of money, in red envelopes called hungpao. A visit to a Taoist temple is sure to be a fascinating adventure, as crowds gather to pay homage to the gods. Temples dedicated to Kuan Kung are particularly active.
Lantern Festival – Two weeks after Chinese New Year, the New Year season officially ends, and its closure is celebrated with the Lantern Festival. In many ways, it is a more dazzling public holiday than New Year itself.Streets, temples and parks in all the cities are lit up with lights, lanterns and electrified floats. Everywhere you find lanterns, you’ll find a sea of people – decidedly a crowd-lover’s occasion.
Earth God Day – The 2nd day of the 2nd month on the Chinese calendar is set aside to worship earth deities. People lay out special offerings to the gods in their local shrines, and Taoist temples hold more elaborate celebrations.
Dragon Boat Festival – This summertime festival falls on the fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar. Naturally, it is most famous for the racing of the dragon boats. According to tradition, in 221 BC, the great poet Chu Yuan drowned himself, and people close by rushed in their boats to save him, to no avail. Afterward, they tried to throw rice to the fish, so that they would not feed on his remains. Ever since, boat races have been held in his honor, and everyone dines on tsung tse, dumplings made of sticky rice and wrapped in leaves of bamboo.
Ghost Month – The seventh month of the lunar calendar, which usually falls around August, is a time when the gates of the underworld are swung open, and the spirits are set free to roam the earth. In every street and alley, people burn spirit money to make the wandering ghosts happy, and make special offerings to their own departed kin. On the 15th day of the month (the full moon), tables are placed out in the streets and laden with food and beverages, enough to satisfy all the unspecified spirits (called good brothers) in the neighborhood, while temples hold elaborate rituals. Throughout the whole month, most Chinese refuse to go near water for fear of water spirits. Those foolish enough not to believe in ghosts might find it an opportune time to hit the beach.
Mid-Autumn Festival Perhaps the most romantic festival in Chinese culture, the Mid-Autumn Festival is dedicated to the poetic beauty of the moon. Held on the full moon of the eighth month, it is celebrated by outdoor gatherings in the countryside, on mountain tops, or wherever a good view of the night sky is to be had. The festival’s traditional snack is the sweet – and perfectly round – pastry called the moon cake. Outdoor barbecues have also become recent popular additions to the ritual. Fireworks are naturally one part of the occasion too.