The 23th day of the last lunar month is “small Spring Festival” (小年 Xiǎonián). It day symbolizes the start of the Spring Festival celebration. In Chinese tradition, people used to offer sacrifices to the kitchen god (祭灶), clean the house and eat melon-shaped maltose (糖瓜儿) on this day.
Aside from some things similar to real Spring Festival traditions—eating dumplings and shooting fireworks—the most important thing to do on small Spring Festival is to hold the rites to worship the kitchen god (灶王爷, pictured left) and send him back to the Jade Emperor (玉皇大帝). The Kitchen god is responsible for the family kitchen and family protection. From the previous year’s Spring Festival Eve to the next small Spring Festival, the kitchen god “sits” in front of the stove to observe, listen and remember every word and action, good or bad, in the family. Thus he is the person (or rather god) who knows the family best. On small Spring Festival, he is sent back to Jade Emperor to report his observations, which will determine the fate of the family in the coming year.
Since it could affect the family’s fortunes in the coming year, in the past people paid a lot of attention to the farewell ceremony for the kitchen god. Male family members dressed formally in front of the kitchen stove where a kitchen god niche or a portrait of him was placed, and offered joss sticks, melon-shaped maltose, paper-horses, and other gifts to help send him back. At the same time, they would beg the god “say more good things [to Jade Emperor], and do not say bad things” (“好话多说，不好的话别说”).
Paper-horses are for the kitchen god’s convenient travel to the Jade Emperor, so melon-shaped maltose is the real offering. It is a kind of sugar, also called Guan Dong Tang (关东糖, pictured right), and is made of maltose. Giving this sugar to the kitchen god has two purposes: first, eating something sweet can make him “honey-lipped” (i.e., it might make him say good things); second, melon-shaped maltose is very sticky, so it may stick to the mouth of the kitchen god and prevent him from saying bad things.
Kids were especially fond of melon-shaped maltose, and would often chase after the itinerant bike peddlers who sold it on the streets of towns and cities. But to tell the truth, melon-shaped maltose is not as delicious as you may imagine. It was just a cheap and sweet snack popular with kids in the past. A piece of melon-shaped maltose might only cost one fen (一分钱), but offer a lot of enjoyment for kids who couldn’t buy more expensive candies.