Chinese New Year in China: A Brief Overview
As it nears the first week of February, there is an all-around excitement in the air in the streets and homes of China. This is because the biggest holiday of the year, Chinese New Year, is approaching. Similar to the festive spirit of Christmas in other Western countries, preparation for Chinese New Year begins early on and there is a great amount of anticipation that comes along with it.
The origins of Chinese New Year, also known as Spring Festival, comes from the Chinese Lunar calendar. Whereas the Western Gregorian calendar follows the earth’s orbit around the sun, China, and many other Asian countries, follow the lunar calendar with the moon’s orbit around the earth. This is why the specific date of Chinese New Year will change from year to year based on the second new moon after the winter solstice.
It is unknown of the specifics of how Chinese New Year has also transformed into “Spring Festival”. However, there is the belief that it gets warmer after this time, and this is when the weather begins to change. Another more practical reason is that when the Chinese Republic first formed in 1912, there was a movement to adopt all Western ideas. This meant that the Western New Year of January 1st was popularized. In order to differentiate the two holidays, “Spring Festival” became the new name for the holiday.
As most Chinese holidays will have its origins in folklore and legends, so does the Chinese New Year. The Chinese word for “year” is “年 Nián”. “Nian” was the name of a legendary monster, similar to a lion, that would haunt the village people. According to stories, in the village also lived a wise man who guided the people in scaring off the monster by setting off firecrackers and playing loud drums. Nian is also scared of the color red, so hanging red paper scrolls and signs outside on doors was seen to protect the villagers as well.
From this old folk story comes many long-standing traditions still used in Chinese New Year today. If you have participated in any sort of New Year celebration, you will know that red is an important color in decorations and even guides what you wear. Perhaps you have also seen the “lion dance” that is popular during this time. Young acrobats and dancers will train for years to be a “lion dancer”. It is extremely impressive and worth watching. If you are lucky enough to be in China during Chinese New Year, you might even catch a sight of the local community practicing their lion dance outside. Signs are still hung outside people’s doors and windows, and firecrackers and drums are heard around the country during this time. Even the name “过年 guonian” comes from the meaning “passing of Nian”.
In a more realistic understanding of the holiday, Chinese New Year was also a way to prepare for spring and the new farming season. Perhaps this is why food during Chinese New Year is a central part of the celebration. Depending on what area of China you are from, various traditional foods will be prepared during this time. Most places will include a variation of sticky rice balls and dumplings. The round-like shapes symbolize good fortune and wealth for the upcoming year.
This is often a time for families to participate in spring cleaning in their homes. No matter where you are, people will travel long and far to return home to their families. Since almost everything will be closed during this time, travel can be hard for those that do not have a place to go during this time. Also remember that right before Chinese New Year Eve and right after the holidays, any travel will be extremely packed and crowded. Many people will book their tickets far in advance to ensure they have a ticket.
This migration that occurs across country is known as “春运 chunyun” or “Spring movement”. The significance for many people who might not have another chance to go home can create a huge emotional attachment to the holiday as well. As families are reunited for this short time, Chinese New Year is something that is looked forward to all year long.
Traditionally, Chinese New Year is a 15-day holiday. However, the holiday has officially been shortened to a week. This will be the longest holiday for most companies to give their employees, and many local businesses and stores will shut down right before this time. The holiday official ends on the 15th day, which is also known as the Lantern Festival.
Some celebrations that occur during this time are to have a new outfit to welcome the new year, and to include red for luck in the upcoming year. Red paper cutouts and lanterns are hung around the house and outside in the streets as well. Calligraphy with words such as “fortune” and “wealth” are popular to ring in the new year.
Children are also given red envelopes with money inside, causing a great anticipation for many households during this time. There is also a national show hosted by China Central Television that is broadcasted during this time. It has been showing since 1982, and the annual New Year’s Gala is now part of the family’s tradition to sit around the television and watch the new exciting dances and comedy acts offered by China’s current talent.
Chinese New Year also corresponds with the changing of the Chinese zodiac signs. There are twelve animal signs that make up the zodiac, and this year happens to be the Year of the Monkey. With each sign comes various characteristics of how lucky your year will be. Whether you choose to wholeheartedly to take part or simply use it as a fun way to learn more about yourself, remember that the Chinese zodiac plays an important part in culture and lives of many.
In the upcoming weeks of February, I will write more about the whole cultural experience of Chinese New Year, including specific foods, family traditions, understanding the Chinese traditional calendar, and also the significance of this year’s “Year of the Monkey”.
Have you ever celebrated Chinese New Year in China or in your home country? Let us know what it was like in the comments below!