by Amy McGarry
Is anyone else ready for spring? I know I am. That’s why I was especially excited to learn from my research that the Chinese New Year is commonly referred to as the Spring Festival, marking the end of winter and the beginning of spring season. Bring on the spring season!
Also known as the Lunar New Year, the first day of Chinese New Year begins on the new moon that appears between January 21 and February 20. This year, the new moon appears on February 1. Almost two billion people, mostly in east Asia, will observe the new year for 15 days, starting February 1. The celebration culminates with the Lantern Festival on February 15 when an amazing display of lanterns are lit and released into the night sky.
The holiday centers around the hope for good fortune and prosperity. Count me in!
Lunar New Year is annually linked to one of 12 zodiac animals – each possessing their own character traits. The animals consist of Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig. The animals are assigned based on a 12-year cycle, making 2022 the Year of the Tiger.
The Tiger is known to be the king of all beasts and is seated third in the Chinese zodiac order of animals. If you were born in 1938, 1950, 1962, 1974, 1986, 1998, or 2010, congratulations! You’re a Tiger! (I’ve always held some bitterness that I was born in the Year of the Rat, although, supposedly, all the signs have their strengths and good qualities).
Those born during a Tiger Year are said to possess some of the qualities of the animal itself, including courage and confidence. Tiger signs are competitive and make natural leaders. They are said to be hungry for thrill and crave attention, not to mention short tempered but capable of generosity.
History of Chinese New Year
According to folklore, Chinese New Year traditions originate from a mythical beast—the Nian. The Nian is a beast that lives under the ocean or in the mountains and has an insatiable hunger for eating villagers, especially children, in the middle of the night during the annual Spring Festival. One year, as the story goes, an old man said that he would get revenge on the Nian. The old man put red papers up and set off firecrackers. It worked! The villagers were saved from the Nian! They had also learned that the Nian was afraid of the color red and loud noises. Thus began the tradition that when New Year was approaching, villagers would wear red clothes, hang red lanterns and red scrolls on windows and doors, and use firecrackers and drums to frighten away the Nian. Nian never came to the village again.
The Chinese New Year is also associated with other ancient customs. Traditionally, it’s a time to honor ancestors. While customs vary widely in different Asian countries and among regions in China, it’s common for families to gather for an annual reunion dinner. It’s also traditional for families to give their houses a good spring cleaning. This is an attempt to sweep away any ill fortune and make way for incoming good luck.
For young people, the best part of the holiday is the money gifts they receive in red paper envelopes. For this reason, countless young Asians look forward to the New Year the way children in the Western world anticipate Christmas. The amount of money can be as much as several hundred dollars. Those who receive a red envelope are wished another safe and peaceful year.
Also similar to the Western Christmas tradition is the Chinese New Year custom of sending greeting cards wishing friends and family good luck.
Chinese New Year Eve
What would an important holiday be without a feast? Chinese New Year Eve is the time when most families have a special dinner. For most Asians, this is the most important family dinner of the year, akin to Thanksgiving in the U.S. or Christmas dinner for some families. The New Year’s Eve dinner also serves as a way to honor ancestors. An extra place setting may be added to the table to invite an ancestor.
In some regions it’s traditional to eat dumplings because dumplings symbolize wealth. In other regions it’s customary to make a glutinous new year cake and send pieces to relatives and friends as a gesture to increase prosperity for the new year.
After dinner, some families may visit local temples to light the first incense of the year and pray for good fortune.
It’s also common to visit the graves of ancestors on the day before Chinese New Year.
Fireworks, Lions, and Dragons
According to chinahighlights.com, “From public displays in major cities to millions of private celebrations in China’s rural areas, setting off firecrackers and fireworks is an indispensable festive activity. It is a way to scare away evil and welcome the new year’s arrival.” At midnight in China, billions of fireworks go off which is the most anywhere at any time of year.
Lion dances and dragon dances are performed throughout the Lunar New Year period in China and Chinatowns in Western countries. Like all of the new year traditions, these dances are designed to bring prosperity and good luck for the upcoming year.
While all of these New Year traditions offer fun and excitement, perhaps the most appealing custom to me is a rather recent addition. Since the mid-1990s, people in China have been given seven consecutive days off work during the Chinese New Year. Now that’s what I call good fortune!