Chinese New Years
The Chinese New Years festival is the most important holiday in China and one of the biggest celebrations in the world. It is an occasion for families to get together to eat traditional foods and follow customs for good luck and health and to celebrate with fireworks and lion dances. Because it marks the end of the coldest days of the winter and the beginning of spring planting, it is known in China as the Spring Festival.
Another name for the celebration is the Lunar New Year. The last day of the Lunar New Year is celebrated as the Lantern Festival. The Chinese New Years festival is celebrated around the world, and even if you’re not Chinese, you can join in the fun and excitement.
When Is Chinese New Years Celebrated?
There isn’t a fixed date for the celebration, which is calculated according to the lunar calendar. It can fall anywhere from January 21 to February 20. Because these dates mark the end of the coldest days, it’s also called the Spring Festival. It marks the beginning of new spring plantings in the fields and brings hopes for new beginnings and good harvests.
The exact duration of the holiday can vary, but any way you calculate it, it’s the longest Chinese holiday. Technically it lasts for 15 days, but some people begin the celebrations a day early on the eve of the New Year, making it 16 days. The holiday season actually begins in December, and by that method of reckoning, it is a 40-day celebration.
Traditionally, people spend the first five days with their families before going out to celebrate. It’s a national holiday, and all the stores are closed. People rush to buy food gifts, snacks and decorations before everything closes down and then devote themselves to the festivities.
How Do People Celebrate Chinese New Year?
This is the busiest travel season in China, since it’s traditional for everyone to go home to celebrate with their families. There’s even a name for it: chunyun, or Spring Migration. The season is famous for its traffic jams and chaos, to the point that authorities significantly raise the cost of plane, train, and bus tickets to try to keep down all unnecessary travel.
As many as three billion journeys are made in connection with the holiday each year in China alone, and it is not at all uncommon for people to be unable to get to their families, or back home at the end of the holiday, on time. The Lunar New Year is celebrated in many different ways, with religious rituals, food and drink, and customs to bring in good luck and drive away evil spirits.
The Spring Festival is a time for families to gather. Family reunions are an occasion for scrutiny of younger family members by older relatives. They have to live up to expectations in terms of having a good career, a partner etc. In fact the pressure to get married and have children is so intense that younger people who are single will often “rent” a boyfriend or girlfriend just to appease their families.
Special television programming for families includes the annual Spring Festival Gala, which is a variety show with traditional and contemporary singers, dancers, and magic shows. This is one of the state’s chief propaganda opportunities, so everything is carefully planned and vetted for political content before being allowed on the air.
There’s also a special genre of Lunar New Year movies known as hesuipian. These movies have family-focused plots with happy endings, perfect for the warm fuzzy feeling that goes with a family holiday.
The traditional greeting for the Lunar New year is xin nian kuai le, or “Happy New Year.” In Cantonese speaking areas, including Hong Kong, the more common greeting is gong hei fat choy. This means “congratulations on the fortune.” The greetings are also written in calligraphy on decorations and paper streamers. Other greetings wish people good harvests, wealth, health and a long life as well as large families with many children.
It is important to say the correct phrases and avoid any “unlucky” phrases or topics so as to open the new year with good luck.
Rituals and Customs
Food offerings are made to the ancestors, who are worshipped as gods. Prayers are offered for a good harvest and for good luck and good health year round. People buy new clothes, clean their homes, and put up decorations in red and gold. These can be lanterns, red paper streamers with calligraphy, fake red chili peppers and more. Chrysanthemums and narcissus flowers are also used for decorations.
Red is considered a lucky color and gifts of cash or lucky money are given in special red envelopes. Children especially look forward to receiving their red pockets of with crisp notes. Fake paper money and gold bars are also burnt to honor the ancestors and to bring them good luck and health in the afterlife.
There are many customs enjoining taboos on things like cutting hair, using knives, scissors or other sharp objects, using unlucky words, etc. Swearing and arguments are also taboo during the holiday. The day before the holiday, it is crucial that the whole house be cleaned in order to sweep away any bad luck.
Fireworks are intended to scare away bad spirits and then to bring in good luck. Some locations in China have banned fireworks because of air pollution, but this is not a popular move and the bans are often disregarded. In China, the fireworks can go on for three nights to well over a week.
Food and Drink
The Lunar New Year festival is a time for eating the most delicious foods. People are expected to eat dumplings every day, and particularly on New Year’s Eve. Making these dumplings is a family event.
All the food is chosen for symbolism, with a whole fish for dinner representing prosperity. Noodles stand for long life, dumplings for good fortune, citrus fruits for wealth and melon seeds for coins. People prepare all kinds of snacks and special foods. These must be bought in advance because all the stores close for the holiday.
Special desserts have symbolic meanings, mostly because their names sound like words having good associations. For example, fa gao, a dessert like sponge cakes and muffins, begins with the same word as fa cai, or “to get rich.”
New Year and the Zodiac
Like the western zodiac, the Chinese zodiac has twelve signs, and each one is represented by an animal. In the Chinese zodiac, however, each sign runs for an entire year, and the Lunar New Year marks the start of the new zodiac year as well. 2019 is the Year of the Pig.
Your zodiac sign is the determined by the year in which you were born and comes around once every twelve years. Your zodiac animal gives you its positive qualities like courage, intelligence, and kindness, but it also predicts your negative traits. A person’s own zodiac year is believed to be unlucky for them, though they can avoid bad luck by wearing red. Red underwear and red socks are popular items that enable people to wear red without having to adjust their outfits.
The Lunar New Year festival ends with the Lantern Festival. Known as the Yuanxiao Festival, it is celebrated on the day of the first full moon of the Lunar New Year. It is a day of partying and used to be considered the Chinese version of Valentine’s Day. Lanterns of various sizes and designs are lighted and placed outdoors for people to admire.
While the Spring Festival is spent at home with the family, for the Lantern Festival people go out to celebrate. They admire the full moon and the lanterns people have lighted and enjoy parades with dragon and lion dancers and stilt walkers. The Lantern Festival is often merged with other ethnic celebrations in different parts of China.
Chinese New Years Celebrations Around the World
The Chinese New Years festival is celebrated around the world, wherever Chinese expatriates and immigrants have settled. Cities like San Francisco, Sydney and London all have large Chinese populations and claim to have the largest Lunar Festival celebrations outside of China.
The Chinese New Years celebrations in San Francisco date back to the 1860s and the days of the Gold Rush, when Chinese immigrants moved to California to work on the railroads and the farms. The San Francisco Lunar New Year celebrations include a parade with floats, costumes, dancers, firecrackers and red lanterns and many Chinese restaurants offer special menus.
Even if you’re not Chinese, you’re welcome to join in the celebrations. The Lunar Festival is also celebrated in countries neighboring China, like Vietnam and South Korea.
The Chinese New Years festival is one of the major holidays worldwide. It emphasizes family, new beginnings, good luck and fortune. With its rich symbolism, food, dances, lanterns and celebrations, it invites participation from people around the world. It’s a chance to say goodbye to bad luck and to welcome new opportunities and good fortune.