The Chinese New Year, also called Lunar New Year or Spring Festival, arrives on a different date each year and last approximately 2 weeks. Depending on the lunar calendar it always takes place somewhere between January 20 and February 20th. Being one of the traditional Chinese festivals, it has a history dating back 4000 years and is the biggest and most important festival in Chinese culture today. It is a time for family and unity and you can compare it a little bit with our Christmas time.
Legend states that the beginning of the Chinese New Year started with a fight against a mythical beast called Nian which also translates as year. The Nian looks like an ox with a lion head and lives in the mountains or in the sea. Nian comes out of hiding once a year, on New Year’s Eve, to harm people, animals, and properties. And as soon as the Chinese people found out that this Nian creature feared the color red, fire, and loud sounds, they had a few weapons to deal with the beast. These actions actually chased the monster away which was the reason for a big celebration. And since that time it is a celebration. ever since it has become a custom to post red Dui Lian, which are posters with poetry at the top and sides of the entrance door. Fireworks played another major part to scare the beast away as did red lanterns which were hung everywhere. Today all these practices are still observed.
During the New Year’s celebrations the whole nation seems to be turning in red, yellow and gold colors that can be found literally everywhere. In Chinese culture red is a symbol for good fortune, energy, joy, good luck and happiness. Yellow (gold) is considered the most beautiful color of all. The Chinese having a saying that “Yellow generates Yin and Yang”, which means to say that yellow is the center of everything. It stands for neutrality and good luck and is sometimes combined with red instead of gold. Yellow was also the color of Imperial China and represents freedom from worldly cares. This is why monks’ garments often are yellow.
The New Year festivities often start a few weeks before the actual holiday. As the old year draws to a close, people deal with unfinished business and tidy up loose ends in anticipation of beginning the new year with a fresh start. Whereas our western intentions are often based on New Years resolutions to fulfill in the year to come, the Chinese actually make an effort to clean up their act before the old year has finished. This means improving on past mistakes, solving problems that have been lingering or renewing friendships with people you haven’t seen in a long time. It is in fact all about starting the new year on a positive note and with a perfectly clean slate.
The act of cleaning and cleansing is a very important part of the whole tradition as well. This originates from the time that people believed bad spirits would lurk behind and under furniture that had not been moved around all year long. Therefore the whole house gets thoroughly cleaned with the intention of driving all potential evil out and honoring the deities. Today people still clean their houses but this is more to make a good impression on all the family members who come and visit.
The New Year’s Eve dinner is the most important dinner of the year for the Chinese people. It is actually more of a family reunion event, especially for those with family members who live far away. It is a longstanding tradition to serve fish and dumplings on this night because these two dishes symbolize prosperity and wealth. The Chinese word for fish sounds like the word for abundance, one of the many reasons fish is considered a lucky food. Nice to know: the fish should be served with the head and tail intact to ensure a good year, from start to finish.
After the New Years Eve dinner, most people normally stay up for the rest of the night. This is called Shou Sui. Originally this custom was born to ensure no bad or evil spirit would sneak into the house or show up at the door. It was a night filled with playing games, drinks, snacks and having a good time.
Right after midnight on New Year’s Eve, fireworks and firecrackers are set off to celebrate the coming of the New Year and to scare of all evil spirits. Needless to say that the more noise and lights, the merrier. There is a belief as well that the person who ignites the first firework of the New Year, will have a year of good luck and fortune.
Traditionally a Lion dance is performed on New Year’s Day. Not to be confused with the dragon dance, which requires several man to operate, the lion dance is performed by one single dancer. Once again to ward of evil spirits and hopefully bring good luck. The Lion dance can also be seen at other important religious and ceremonial events in China.
Yasui Qian & Hongbao
On New Year’s Day follows another tradition. The giving of a red packets or Hongbao. It is usually given by adults and elderly to young children to keep children safe from harm, keep them healthy and the wish to secure them a long life. The red envelope contains money. It is not clear where the red envelope tradition originated. But it is believed that during the Qin Dynasty, the elderly would use a red string to thread coins. The money was called yāsuì qián, meaning money warding off evil spirits, and was believed to protect the elderly from sickness and death.