Differences between the auspicious time for ancestor worship in the New Year and ancestor worship in different places of origin

祭祖
(Image source: I-Stock)

It is a traditional Chinese custom to pay homage to the ancestors during the festive season. Although the ritual process and offerings have been gradually simplified over time, the Lunar New Year rituals are still valued by most Chinese families as Chinese people believe everything is renewed at the beginning of the New Year, reflecting the core value of being prudent and serious in paying tribute to one's ancestors.

When interviewed by the Preserving Traditions team, Malaysian field historian and folklorist, Lee Eng Kew said that each family has its own way of worshipping their ancestors, some of which are handed down from their ancestors, while others evolve according to their living habits, and that there is no right or wrong way of worshipping, and what is most important is the filial piety and obedience of children and grandchildren towards their ancestors.

"The process of ancestor worship is basically as follows: prepare the offerings, place them neatly on the table in front of the ancestor tablets, burn three or six sticks of incense, go outside to invite the deceased ancestors to the feast, and inform the door gods that the ancestors need to be welcomed. For the offerings, some families prepare Three Sacrifices and home-cooked food, while others order food from restaurants. After the offerings are made, the family kneels down and burns incense to invite the ancestors to come and eat. The order of burning incense is in the order of seniority of family members, such as parents, eldest son and daughter-in-law, second son and daughter-in-law, then children and grandchildren, and so on and so forth.

He went on to say that after about half an hour, an oracle is thrown to ask the ancestors if they have eaten enough, and then an oracle is thrown to ask the ancestors for permission to burn paper money (some families do not ask to burn paper money). If the ancestors agree, the family will burn the paper money and yuanbao. In some Nyonya families, cakes and pastries are baked the day before to pay tribute to their deceased ancestors, telling them that they will worship them tomorrow and inviting them to come back tomorrow for the rituals.

From his fieldwork, he reported that the offerings to the ancestors mainly consisted of the Three Sacrifices, tea, wine, cakes and fruits, but also varied according to the place of origin.

祭祖
(Image source: I-Stock)

"Teochew or Hokkien people are slightly more formal, serving five or six bowls of rice or even twelve bowls of rice, while Cantonese or Hakka people usually serve three bowls of rice, one bowl of soup and five or seven bowls of food. The number of chopsticks, spoons, tea and wine is usually determined by the number of bowls of rice. As modern families are getting smaller, the offerings are simpler. Some people prepare a boxed meal or divide the dishes and rice into small bowls as offerings to their ancestors.

Traditionally, ancestor worship on New Year's Eve is usually done during the day, and in recent years there has been a saying that “ancestor worship should not be done after 12 noon”. Lee Eng Kew pointed out that the latter statement is not correct, as it is related to the fact that southern Buddhist monks do not eat at noon. If you are busy in the morning, you can move the time of offering to the afternoon, do not worry about the time, ancestor worship is a sacred event, just take it easy and venerate your ancestors with sincerity.

He mentioned that traditional customs may change with the times and the environment, but the core never changes. Inherit the spirit of prudence, respect for God (ancestors) as God, worship ancestors by inviting them home as if they continue to exist, whether they are alive or deceased, treat them as “human”; provide food, tea and wine, paper money for the deceased ancestors as this is the philosophy of Chinese civilization of "being human".

As the saying goes, each country or place has its own customs, each origin has its own way of worshipping, each family also has a different way of worshipping. Therefore, this article is for reference only.


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