How Chinese New Year Works

The dragon dance is often performed on the last day of Chinese New Year celebrations. See pictures of Beijing.

Every year between late January and the third week of February, more than 20 percent of the world's population plunges into a period of feasts, festivities and fireworks. This mega-holiday goes by the names Chinese New Year, Lunar New Year or Asian New Year. It's celebrated in mainland China and in many other Asian countries, as well as by people of Asian heritage around the world, and it's one of the richest of all holidays in its variety of customs and traditions.

New Year in the West is celebrated for only one day, and, of course, the evening before. Traditional Chinese New Year, on the other hand, lasts two weeks. The holiday once had a close connection to Buddhist, Taoist and folk religious practices, but like many Western holidays, it is now mainly a secular celebration. There are many different ways to celebrate: Some, like paying honor to ancestors, are based on age-old traditions, while others, like watching a traditional gala on television, are very modern. Chinese New Year is a time to enjoy good times with family, to cultivate luck and to extend wishes of prosperity in the coming year.

The celebration of the Lunar New Year is based on a calendar that originated in China in the 14th century B.C., which, in its earliest form, was connected to the Chinese agricultural cycle [source:]. Early spring, when Chinese New Year takes place, was the time farmers began to prepare for planting. The last day of the year was also when the landlord came by to collect the yearly rent for farmers' land. Peasants who managed to pay it had reason to celebrate [source: Gao]. Before gunpowder was invented, they made loud noises by tossing sections of bamboo into a fire -- the heat caused these primitive firecrackers to explode with a bang.

In 1912, the Nationalist Chinese government started to play down the celebration of the Lunar New Year. Officials renamed it Spring Festival and urged citizens to use the Gregorian calendar prevalent in the West, which recognizes New Year on January 1. However, many Chinese still clung to the traditions connected with the lunar year. Then, the holiday was banned completely after Communists took control of China in 1949. New Year customs connected with religion and superstition did not fit with Communist dogma and were discouraged by the state [source: Rabkin].

The celebration of New Year in China began to revive in the late 20th century, when the Chinese government began to liberalize its rule. Today, Chinese workers get a week-long holiday that extends through the first half of the Chinese New Year period, and they have returned to celebrating the holiday in a big way [source:].

But how are the exact dates of Chinese New Year determined each year? Read on to the next page to find out.

The Chinese Calendar

The solar year, which is the basis of the Gregorian calendar used around the world, is a bit more than 365 days long. The traditional Chinese calendar, which determines the date of the Lunar New Year, is lunisolar, which means it's based on the cycle of the moon as well as on Earth's course around the sun. A month on this Chinese calendar is 28 days long, and a normal year lasts from 353 to 355 days [source:]. To keep the calendar in sync with the sun and the seasons, the Chinese add an extra leap month about once every three years [source:].

Determining the date of Chinese New Year requires some complicated calculations. In most cases, it falls on the second new moon after the winter solstice. In the Gregorian calendar, the solstice is around Dec. 21. That's why Chinese New Year typically occurs in late January or during one of the first three weeks of February.

The years of the Chinese calendar follow a 12-year cycle. Each year is associated with one of 12 animal symbols, such as the tiger, rabbit and dragon [source:]. Every new year marks the end of the reign of one animal and the beginning of the next. For example, 2012 is the year of the dragon, 2013 is the year of the snake, and 2014 is the year of the horse. Those born under the sign of an animal are thought to possess the qualities associated with it. According to these beliefs, dragon year people are proud, self-assured and direct; those born in a snake year are wise and creative; horse people are cheerful and intelligent [source:].

The Chinese calendar was once widely used in Asia, and versions of the Lunar New Year are celebrated in other Asian countries. In Vietnam, for example, the holiday is called Tet. It's a three-day celebration that includes many of the customs that are followed in China, such as feasts of special foods and paying respect to ancestors. Japan and Korea have long used the Gregorian calendar, but people in those countries incorporate some of the same customs into their Jan. 1 New Year festivities.

Many individual days of the Chinese New Year period have special meaning attached to them. We'll look at those on the next page.

The Days of Chinese New Year

Many dishes for Chinese New Year have to be prepared ahead of time, since no cooking takes place during the first five days of the holiday.
Many dishes for Chinese New Year have to be prepared ahead of time, since no cooking takes place during the first five days of the holiday.

Preparations for Chinese New Year begin about a week in advance. For example, foods have to be prepared ahead of time, because traditionally, no cooking takes place during the first five days of the New Year. The week prior to the celebration is also a time to buy gifts and to prepare decorations. But the most important step in getting ready for New Year is cleaning the house. The custom is to sweep dust to the middle of room and out the back door, which symbolizes sweeping away bad luck. Residents of a home sometimes clean and paint doorways and windows to welcome good luck in [source: Roth].

If possible, all who owe money try to settle their debts before the New Year. Chinese companies often give New Year bonuses -- a month's wages is typical -- so that workers can pay off debts and have money to buy gifts and food [source: Welch]. This is also a traditional time to symbolically send the Kitchen God to heaven. This domestic deity, represented by a paper image, is burned in order to carry information about the family to the Taoist god known as the Jade Emperor [source: Rabkin].

On New Year's Eve, Chinese families traditionally gather for a large meal. They stay up late in order to welcome the New Year at midnight. The next day, the first day of the 15-day celebration, is generally a quiet day in China. The cooking and cleaning have already been done, and most people stay at home or pay visits to friends.

When out visiting, many Chinese bring small gifts, and hosts offer tea. Everyone exchanges greetings and wishes of good luck and prosperity for the coming year. An example of a traditional greeting is, "Congratulations and be prosperous," but many people who meet just wish each other Happy New Year [source: Wertz]. On the third day, it's common to visit graves in order to pay respects to relatives who've passed away. On the fifth day, the taboos against cleaning and cooking traditionally end. Visits are usually not made on this day, which is when prosperity is said to come down from heaven. The seventh day of New Year is known as the Universal Birthday of humans. Traditionally, it's the time when people add one year to their age.

By this point, most Chinese have returned to their jobs and regular lives, but there's one more celebration in store. It happens on the 15th day, the first full moon of the year. Known as the Lantern Festival, it's celebrated with parades, dances and, of course, displays of all kinds of lanterns. This is when you're likely to see a dragon dance, with chains of performers snaking through the streets under a cloth or paper dragon costume. In China, the dragon is a symbol of prosperity and luck and the dance is a final attempt to attract good luck for the coming year. The largest dragon dance outside of Asia takes place in San Francisco's Chinatown [source: Welch].

New Year is above all a family holiday. In the next section, we'll look at the traditional way families celebrate together.

Chinese New Year Family Traditions

Gathering as many generations of the family as possible for the holiday is the strongest tradition associated with Chinese New Year. Many Chinese have moved to big cities like Beijing, and New Year is the time they return to the villages where they grew up to be with their extended families. On New Year's Eve, when gathering for the first big family meal of the season, they dress in new clothes, often something red, the color associated with New Year. Then at midnight, family members fling open doors and windows to let the old year out.

Since Chinese New Year is also a time for gift giving, another common tradition involves gifting red envelopes that contain "lucky money." Usually married couples give these gifts to children and single people, and when they go out, they carry envelopes to hand out to the children or the servants of families they visit. The money given in an envelope can be a token amount, such as a few dollars, or a more substantial gift, and it has symbolic as well as monetary value. For example, the amount should be an even number, and the numbers eight and 88 are considered especially lucky because the word for "eight" sounds like a word that means "prosperity" [source: Welch].

Remembering and showing respect for ancestors was once an important part of Chinese New Year celebrations, too. Chinese families placed food and burned incense on home altars devoted to those who had passed on. They also said prayers to departed relatives, who they still considered part of the family. These ceremonial customs are less common now, but generally showing respect for ancestors and elders -- by visiting grandparents, for example -- is still a part of New Year tradition in many Chinese homes.

Food is also an essential part of any Chinese New Year celebration. On the next page, we'll explore some of the delicious items that are associated with the holiday.

Chinese New Year Foods

While folks in the West traditionally welcome the New Year by drinking champagne and maybe eating black-eyed peas and greens for luck and wealth, the Chinese emphasize feasting and mark New Year's Eve with a large dinner, which typically includes items like dumplings, prawns, dried oysters and other types of seafood. This was traditionally a home-cooked meal, but today more families celebrate at restaurants, which is why New Year's Eve reservations at good restaurants in China can be hard to come by. Families might also hire a professional chef to cook their meal at home [source:].

Many of the foods associated with New Year have symbolic meaning attached to them. For example, oranges, melons and kumquats are popular because their gold color suggests wealth. Dumplings are fashioned to resemble gold and silver ingots and served in soup as symbols of riches. Hard-boiled eggs, cellophane noodles, fish and chicken are all associated with prosperity. Long noodles represent longevity, and the Chinese eat them whole -- it's said that cutting them up in the bowl might lead to a short life. Since red is also so much associated with the New Year, it also features heavily in celebratory dishes. Red dates, red-dyed pumpkin seeds and pomegranates often appear on Chinese tables during this time of year.

On New Year's Day, some families eat a vegetarian meal in order to pay respect to the Buddhist precept of not killing animals and to gain longevity. One popular meat-free dish is jai, a stew that includes ginkgo nuts, black moss, bean curd, bamboo shoots, noodles and scallions, all foods associated with good luck. For dessert, oranges and Chinese New Year cake appear [source: Family Culture].

On the seventh day of the New Year, the Universal Birthday, a colorful, tossed raw fish salad serves as a symbol of longevity and good luck. On the 13th, a simple cleansing meal of rice and greens is advised to take a break from all the feasting. For Lantern Festival at the end of the New Year celebration period, the Chinese eat a soup containing balls of glutinous rice. These dumplings represent the full moon and perfection and like many other New Year foods, are intended to bring good luck. Popular snacks throughout the period include peanuts and mandarin oranges. A circular tray containing sweets and nuts, known as the "Tray of Togetherness," is also a favorite [source:].

There are many other traditional ways to celebrate Chinese New Year. Read on to find out about the most popular ones.

More Chinese New Year Customs

If you stumble upon a Chinese New Year celebration, chances are you'll see decorations everywhere.
If you stumble upon a Chinese New Year celebration, chances are you'll see decorations everywhere.
Pawel Libera/Britain on View/Getty Images

If you visit China during the New Year, signs of the holiday will be obvious. New Year decorations are as popular there as Christmas displays are in the United States. Typical decorations include red banners and decorative symbols, such as an image of a toad with coins in his mouth, which help scare away evil and attract luck (and money). It's also common to print auspicious sayings on pieces of paper or banners -- usually two-line verses that welcome spring or ask for good fortune. The Chinese also display flowers everywhere, especially peach and orange blossoms, which in some parts of China are just beginning to bloom around the New Year.

Superstition also tends to play a big role in Chinese New Year celebrations. Although people don't believe in them as widely as they once did, superstitious traditions still add to the unique flavor of the holiday. For example, it's said that the first person you meet on New Year's Day will influence your luck for the entire year. Also, some believe that using a knife or scissors on New Year could cut off your luck. You should avoid breaking a dish or dropping a chopstick, which could bring bad fortune. And according to superstition, crying on New Year will fill your year with sorrow [source: Roth].

Many additional customs help set the tone for Chinese New Year celebrations, including the following:

  • Dance and theater. Performances of dance, opera and theater are common activities at Chinese New Year celebrations. The Lion Dance is especially popular; it involves two performers putting on a lion costume and making wild twists and turns to the music of a band that features instruments like the gong, drum and cymbals.
  • Fireworks. The Chinese spend about $3 billion each year on fireworks for New Year's celebrations. The noise from the displays is intended to scare away evil spirits and bad luck, as well as entertain [source: Jacobs].
  • Games. To pass the time while waiting for the New Year, many families play mahjong or other card and board games on the night of New Year's Eve.
  • Television. Millions of families in China now celebrate New Year's Eve by sitting around the television. They watch an elaborate variety show known as the "Spring Festival Gala," which has been broadcast on Chinese Central Television since the 1980s and has become a tradition in its own right [source: Hays].

Like most holidays, Chinese New Year -- and its associated traditions -- has evolved over the years and continues to change. It has become a grab bag of customs old and new, but for hundreds of millions of people around the world, it is still the grandest holiday of the year.

Read on for lots more information about Chinese customs and traditions.

Related Articles


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