Fireworks, dragons, lions, and Nian gao all signify the start of Chinese New Year. This is one of the most important holidays. It is observed all over the world. Similar celebrations occur in Japan, Korea, and Vietnam known as the Lunar New Year or the Spring Festival.
Most Chinese holidays follows the lunar calendar so the date varies from year to year. The Chinese New Year always occurs in January or February on the second new moon after the winter solstice, though on occasion it has been the third new moon.
A long time ago, the emperor determined the start of the New Year. Today, celebrations are based on Emperor Han Wu Di’s almanac. It uses the first day of the first month of the Lunar Year as the start of Chinese New Year.
Each year has a ruling animal based on the Chinese Zodiac.
Traditions observed during the New Year stem from legends and practices from ancient times. Legend tells of a village, thousands of years ago, that was ravaged by Nian, an evil monster, one winter’s night. The following year the monster returned and again ravaged the village. Before it could happen a third time, the villagers devised a plan to scare the monster away. The color red protects against evil. Red banners were hung everywhere. Firecrackers were set off, and people banged on drums and gongs creating loud noises to scare the beast away. The plan worked. The celebration lasted several days during which people visited with each other, exchanged gifts, danced, and ate tasty comestibles. Today, celebrations last two weeks.
Celebrations today are both literal and symbolic.
Preparing for the New Year
Spring cleaning is started about a month prior to the new year and must be completed before the celebrations begin. All the negativity and bad luck from the previous year must be swept out of the house.
People also get haircuts and purchase new clothing. It symbolizes a fresh start.
Flowers and decorations are purchased. Decorations include a New year picture (Chinese colored woodblock print), Chinese knots, and paper-cuttings, and couplets.
Flowers have special meanings and the flower market stocks up on:
- plum blossom for luck
- kumquats for prosperity
- narcissus for prosperity
- sunflowers to have a good year
- eggplant to heal sickness
- chom mon planta for tranquility
Offerings are made to the Kitchen God about a week before the New Year.
During the New Year
Brooms and cleaning material are put away. No cleaning takes place during the holiday so no good luck is sweep out of the home.
During the New Year celebrations people do not fight and avoid being mean to each other, as this would bring a bad, unlucky year.
Bright colors and red are worn.
Everyone celebrates their birthday this day and they turn one year older.
Traditional red oval shaped lanterns are hung.
The Annual Reunion Dinner, Nian Ye Fan, is held on New Year’s Eve. This is an important part of the celebration. Families come together and eat together. The food is symbolic. Many dishes have ingredients that sound the same as good tidings. In northern China, dumplings are served at midnight, they symbolize wealth.
Foods during the entire holiday hold symbolism as well. Red meat is not served and one is careful not to serve or eat from a chipped or cracked plate. Fish is eaten to ensure long life and good fortune. Red dates bring the hope for prosperity, melon seeds for proliferation, and lotus seeds means the family will prosper through time. Oranges and tangerines symbolize wealth and good fortune. Nian gao, the New Year’s Cake is always served. It is believed that the higher the cake rises the better the year will be. When company stops by a “prosperity tray” is served. The tray has eight sides (another symbol of prosperity) and is filled with goodies like red dates, melon seeds, cookies, and New Year Cakes.
Red packets called Lai See Hong Bao (or Hongbao) with money tucked inside are given out as a symbol of good luck. The amount is an even number as odd numbers are regarded as unlucky.
Lions are considered good omens. The lion dance repels demons. Each lion has two dancers, one to maneuver the head, the other to guide the back. Business owners offer the lions a head of lettuce and oranges or tangerines. The offerings hope to insure a successful year in business. Lettuce translates into “growing wealth” and tangerines and oranges sound like “gold” and “wealth” in Chinese. The lions eat the oranges, then spew them up and out into the hordes of people who eagerly tried to catch the them. After eating the lettuce, they spit out it out in a thousand pieces.
The dragon dance is a highlight in the celebrations. A team of dances mimic the movements of the dragon river spirit. Dragons bring good luck.
The end of the New Year is celebrated with the Lantern Festival.
Use the navigation area on the left to find crafts and recipes for The Chinese New Year.
lantern photo courtesy of Elliott Brown, Wikicommons.org