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The 15-day celebration of Chinese New Year — also known as the Lunar New Year or the Spring Festival — is a beloved tradition for Chinese populations around the world. While many revelers adhere to the festival’s centuries-old traditions, rituals, and superstitions, others add their own cultural and geographical spin on the festivities. In 2021, the New Year (the year of the Ox) occurs on Friday, February 12. To celebrate, here are 15 facts about Chinese New Year and how it’s observed around the world.
Chinese New Year Is Based on the Lunar Calendar
Chinese New Year falls on the second new moon after the winter solstice. Because the date of the new moon changes each year, the date of the holiday changes, too. Typically it falls sometime between January 21 and February 20 on the Gregorian calendar. The Gregorian calendar — the 12-month solar calendar that’s widely used around the world and always celebrates the start of a new year on January 1 — is based on Earth’s orbit around the sun, while the lunar calendar follows the moon’s orbit around Earth.
It is also believed that the holiday’s roots are agricultural in nature. The dates closely coincide with the end of the harvest season, when farmers would feast and celebrate before resting, until it was time to prep the land for the next growing season. The holiday is also known as the Spring Festival, a more recent designation that seems odd given that it falls in the middle of winter, but actually lines up with the early February start of spring according to ancient agricultural calendars.
Its Origins Are Loaded With Legend and Mythology
While Chinese New Year may be tied to China’s ancient agrarian culture, the holiday is also closely associated with some popular centuries-old legends. These stories vary, but they all include a mythical monster named Nián. Legend has it that the beast, whose name translates to “year” and who resembles a lion-dragon hybrid, would show up and hunt villagers at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve. After much loss in the village, it was finally discovered that loud firecrackers (made of burning bamboo) and the color red scared Nián off.
Some of the most popular stories about the mythical beast say it was a wise old man who told the villagers how to scare Nián away; others insist that a drifter wandered into town and fought the monster with these deterrents. Regardless of the actual origin story, both the color red and the exorbitant use of fireworks remain popular elements of the Chinese New Year celebration.
Each Year Is Named After One of the 12 Animals in the Chinese Zodiac
The Chinese zodiac operates on a 12-year cycle, and each New Year bears its own animal sign. (2021 is the year of the Ox.) Not unlike many popular Chinese New Year traditions, the exact origins of the zodiac signs are unclear, but nearly all of the tales involve an animal race. One of the most widely circulated stories claims that, in the sixth century B.C., the Jade Emperor challenged all creatures on Earth to race each other. The first 12 to cross the finish line — the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig, in that order — were awarded their own signs in the Chinese zodiac. (The Western zodiac, by comparison, is based on constellations' positions relative to Earth.)
The Chinese calendar also suggests that the year you were born may determine aspects of your personality. If you were born in the year of the Ox, for example, you might be more likely to be calm and diligent; the rat is said to be quick-witted and resourceful. Unfortunately, the Chinese zodiac also believes the year of your birth sign to be a very unlucky year — all the more reason to take the season’s superstitions seriously.
The Focus Is on Family
As with many other holidays, family and togetherness are at the core of Chinese New Year celebrations. The main event is the Lunar New Year’s Eve family reunion dinner, when family members who've traveled home for the holiday gather around the table for an abundant feast reminiscent of American Thanksgiving. The joyous occasion symbolizes hope and well-being for the year ahead, not only in the gathering of family and friends, but often in the food served as well. (A popular dish is a whole cut white chicken, which signifies surplus and prosperity.)
The family gathering is so intrinsic to the holiday that, in normal years, the sheer volume of people traveling home triggers the biggest human migration on the planet. The “spring movement,” also known as the Chunyun period, sees hundreds of millions of people flood China’s transportation networks across almost 3 billion trips, with many making the journey ahead of time in order to help with the food and decor for the two-week festival.
Food is Also Fundamental to the Celebration
Food is as central to Chinese New Year as it is to most holiday gatherings. Some of the most common festive treats include chicken and fish for the all-important New Year’s Eve dinner, as well as dumplings, glutinous rice cakes, spring rolls, and sweet rice balls. Typically, foods are chosen for their resemblance to Chinese words and phrases indicating wealth, health, and happiness. Spring rolls bring bars of gold to mind, while dumplings resemble a bygone currency. A whole fish, meanwhile, is a dinner table staple due to the fact that its Chinese pronunciation is similar to the word for "leftover" — which manifests an excess of good things in the year to come.
What people eat in other countries that celebrate the Lunar New Year varies. In Korea, for example, the traditional rice cake soup known as tteokguk is a must-have, while in Singapore, families gather around a steaming huo guo (hot pot) meal. In the Philippines, sweet rice is adapted into a scrumptious steamed cake known as tikoy.
Festive Red Decor Is Abundant
For days leading up to the Lunar New Year, red decor appears just about everywhere, lining streets and filling homes. It’s an important color in Chinese culture — not only does it represent joy and good luck, but in the New Year’s ancient origin stories, the bright scarlet color was also successful in scaring off Nián, the beast who appeared each year.
Popular decorations include paper lanterns (often hung in front of doors to ward off bad luck) and intricate paper cuttings of well-known superstitious symbols such as fish and dragons. One of the most important is the Spring Festival couplet. Also known as chunlian, this ubiquitous adornment consists of a pair of poetic verses written in black ink on red paper. The papers are placed on either side of a home’s entrance, with messages that express joy and good wishes for the year ahead.
Celebrations Take to the Streets With Elaborate Parades and Dances
No matter where in the world a Chinese New Year celebration takes place, you can be certain it will be accompanied by colorful parades and traditional dragon dances. Parades typically happen on New Year’s Day and again on the 15th day of the holiday, during the traditional lantern festival that closes out the celebration.
The dragon dance is carried out by a team that maneuvers a long, flexible dragon costume into mesmerizing moves. Chinese dragons symbolize wisdom, power, and wealth, and are believed to bring good luck — the longer the dragon, the luckier it is. Parades and dances are also usually accompanied by loud music, fireworks, and drumming, all of which are believed to ward off evil spirits.
Fireworks Play a Major Role
Pyrotechnics are an essential part of Chinese New Year. The custom dates back to the holiday’s origins, when old-fashioned firecrackers in the form of burning bamboo were used to scare the fierce monster Nián away from the villagers.
The fireworks begin on New Year’s Eve, when families set off firecrackers before dinner to celebrate and to summon their ancestors. Sparks continue to fly throughout the two weeks, most notably at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve and during the public parades, leaving shreds of symbolic red paper everywhere. All around the world, major fireworks displays are incorporated into Chinese New Year festivities; the light show in Hong Kong is one of the most famous celebrations.
Money Is Gifted in Traditional Red Envelopes
Chinese New Year is much like Christmas in the Western world — abundant in food, family, and gifts. But these gifts primarily consist of cold, hard cash, doled out in recognizable little red envelopes (hóngbāo) that are as important as what’s inside. The envelopes are often embossed with gold lettering and decorations, with the color red once again used to symbolize happiness, aspiration, and good luck for the year ahead.
There are certain rules of red envelope etiquette one is expected to follow: The bills should be crisp, new paper straight from the bank, and the unlucky number four should be avoided. The envelope must also be given and received with both hands.
It’s a Superstitious Time
The theme of a fresh start is central to any New Year’s celebration around the world, and for the Lunar New Year, there are some very specific superstitions to be aware of. In the days leading up to the New Year, people busy themselves with scrubbing every inch of their homes as they wash away any bad luck from the past year. But on New Year’s Day, all cleaning comes to a halt for fear that any good fortune for the year ahead might be swept away.
Another custom is for people to get a fresh haircut and new clothes to ring in the Lunar New Year. Red is the most popular color, of course (including for underwear). While some families still don traditional Chinese clothing, Western styles are dominant — just as long as the clothes are new, so you start the year with your best foot forward.
The Holiday Closes with a Traditional Lantern Festival
On the 15th day of the Chinese New Year, on the first full moon of the lunar calendar, the celebrations come to a close with the traditional Lantern Festival (Yuan Xiao). While the first few days of the New Year festival are observed as holidays, with businesses closed, the remainder of the two-week timeframe is more or less business as usual in most places. However, on the final day, many gather again for an enormous street party featuring dragon dances, fireworks, food, and a shimmering sky full of glowing paper Chinese lanterns.
A popular dessert served during the Lantern Festival is tangyuan, a ball-shaped dumpling made of glutinous rice flour and stuffed with a variety of fillings: white and brown sugar, bean paste, sesame seeds, peanuts, walnuts, and more. Like many of the foods associated with Chinese New Year, this particular dessert is of significance thanks to its name and appearance. Tangyuan sounds similar to the Chinese word for “reunion” (tuányuán), and its round shape symbolizes togetherness and wholeness.
It’s a Busy Time for Temples
Praying is an important tradition during the festival, as people pray on the first day of the New Year for good luck in the year ahead — not only for themselves and their family but also for their country. While the prayers are a personal affair, the ritual can also be as celebratory as the rest of the holiday. Tens of thousands of people visit temples around the world, many of which burn incense, feature traditional dances and performances, offer snacks, and feature thousands of lanterns in their public courtyards.
It’s Also a Time for Ancestor Worship
Praying to deities is not the only worship done during Chinese New Year. Taking time to acknowledge and pray to family ancestors is an important tradition that typically takes place before the New Year’s Eve reunion dinner. Firecrackers are set off to invite the ancestors to join the celebrations as fruits, sweets, tea, and flowers are offered to those who have long been deceased.
Ancestor worship rituals vary by region and country. In the south of China, it’s more common to visit relatives’ gravesites on New Year’s Day, as opposed to the previous night’s in-home customs observed in the north. In Thailand, family homes have elaborate altars dedicated to their ancestors; on the eve of the Lunar New Year, the family spends the day tending to the shrines while burning incense and taking turns worshipping.
Some Things Are Taboo
For all of the merriment and tradition that characterizes the Chinese New Year, it’s also a time of fear and superstition. For every joyful celebration and family ritual, there are certain things that must be avoided for fear of misfortune in the year ahead.
If you want to encourage wealth, it’s wise not to use scissors or needles — or even eat porridge — for they’re all considered hazardous to one’s finances. If you’d like to keep good luck on your side, remember not to clean your house, your clothing, or even your hair or body, for fear that you could wash it all away. And if you want to stay out of harm’s way, it’s best to avoid using any negative words, wearing black or white clothing, or crying, as they’re all bound to bring you bad luck on New Year’s Day.
Global Cities Put Their Own Unique Spin on the Celebrations
No matter where in the world Chinese New Year is celebrated, some things remain the same — family, friends, food, and, of course, lively festivities. But many regions put their own spin on the holiday, making the celebrations unique to wherever in the world you happen to be.
In Manchester, England, the festival honors not just the accompanying ancient traditions but also contemporary Chinese culture and screenings of recent Chinese-language films. Since it’s summer in Sydney, Australia, the Lunar New Year features dragon boat races as part of the holiday celebrations. Even within China, celebrations will vary. In Hong Kong, dragons and lions aren’t the only animals represented during public events — horse racing is a major draw, as the Hong Kong Jockey Club puts on the Chinese New Year Cup Race every year.