Chinese New Year, also known as the Spring Festival, is the most important Chinese holiday. It is a time of reunion, celebration and tradition. But one of the most interesting Chinese New Year traditions takes place before the old year has even come to an end.
On the 23rd day of the 12th lunar month, seven days before the New Year, is the “Little New Year” (小年). The Little New Year marks the beginning of the Spring Festival. This year it takes place on January 20th. The Little New Year is associated with the Kitchen God.
The Kitchen God (灶神) is also known as the Lord of the Stove (灶君) and the Perfected Lord Who Controls Destiny (司命真君). There are many different legends about where the kitchen god came from. The most common legend says that he was once a mortal man named Zhang Lang. Zhang Lang left his wife and children for a younger woman. Soon after, the younger woman ran off, and Zhang Lang began to live as a wandering beggar. One day he begged at a house where he was taken in to the kitchen and given food. Suddenly, Zhang Lang saw his wife about to enter the kitchen. Realizing he was in her new house, Zhang Lang was filled with shame. He threw himself into the fire to avoid facing her. When the Jade Emperor (one of the most important Daoist deities) heard Zhang Lang’s story, he took pity on him, and appointed him as the kitchen god.
The Kitchen God has several responsibilities. He watches over each family and protects them from evil spirits. He also records what they do throughout the year. On Little New Year, the Kitchen God returns to heaven to report to the Jade Emperor about each family’s behavior, so that they can be rewarded or punished in the new year. The idea of an immortal being who watches and rewards or punishes people is similar to the western notion of Santa Claus.
When I was a child, we would wake up early on Little New Year and clean the house and yard. My mother would prepare special food. We did not have an image of the Kitchen God in our house, but we would lay all of the food out in the kitchen. We would burn incense and bow. My parents warned my brothers and I to be extra careful not to cry or fight or call each other names on that day, so that we didn’t give the Kitchen God a bad impression. In some families, they offer the kitchen god sticky rice cakes or candy. The idea is that when he eats the treats, his mouth will be stuck shut, and he won’t be able to give his report. Some people also smear honey on his lips to sweeten his words. In some places in China, they burn the picture of the Kitchen God, to send him off to the spirit realm. A new picture is hung up on the 4th day after the Chinese New Year (Jan 31st this year) when he is said to return from heaven.
The Kitchen God is also honored in Daoist temples. When a traveling priest or nun first comes to a new temple, they report to the refectory (the temple kitchen and meal hall). In the refectory, they bow to the Kitchen God, and let the head cook know that there is one more mouth to feed. On the 23rd day of the 12th month, the temples kitchens are very busy. The head cook leads offerings to the Kitchen God. In the main temple hall that day, in addition to the regular morning recitations, we recite a special scripture called the Scripture of the Kitchen God (灶王经). In some temples the priests and nuns form a procession from the main hall to the kitchens while reciting the scripture. On normal days in the temples, the food is self-serve. Each person brings a bowl from their room, serves themselves what they want to eat, and then sits in the refectory or returns to their rooms to eat. The night of the 23rd is special. In honor of the Kitchen God, serving dishes are brought to the tables, and everyone in the temple sits and enjoys a meal together, family style.
If you would like, you can click here to download an image of the kitchen god for your kitchen. Don’t forget to be extra careful to treat the people in your house with kindness and respect. Maybe it will bring you good luck in the new year!