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All you need to know about Chinese New Year

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Origins of Chinese New Year

The splendid display and optimistic spirit of Chinese New Year celebrations today are said to have sinister origins, shrouded in legend. The story goes that a terrible monster called Nian would wait til the darkest night, when the new moon was barely a sliver, and attack Chinese villagers, destroying their homes and taking the youngest inhabitants to eat. It wasn’t until a wise old man arrived that they were left in peace. The old man knew how to scare the monster away, and passed his knowledge on to the terrified villagers. He told them how Nian was afraid of the colour red, fire and loud noises. From then on, the new moon was greeted with red banners and lanterns, firecrackers and drums, all designed to keep Nian at bay. Some even say that the Chinese lion dance is attributed to the driving away of Nian.

Chinese New Year in New York

Modern festivities

Thankfully, unsettling images of Nian no longer hold much importance in terms of the huge celebrations that take place all over the world today. Chinese New Year (known as Chūn Jié or Spring Festival in China) is an upbeat festival with the emphasis on togetherness, prosperity, and happiness, and it is the biggest annual event in the Chinese calendar. One of the keystones of the celebration is to spend time with family, so every year in the run up to the festivities there are a large number of people on the move throughout China and beyond. So many people travel at this time in China that special transport arrangements have to be made for the 2 weeks prior to New Year. This mass exodus of people to their hometown is thought to be the biggest annual migration of human beings in the world!

Preparation

Traditionally, the celebrations in mainland China continue for fifteen days after the New Year, but it is more common now for the public holiday to include the first three days after new year, and for people to take an extra couple of days off to round it up to a week’s break. New Year festivities in China are fun and full of colour, but it is also a time heavy with tradition and superstition. The run up to the festival itself is a busy time for Chinese families, and the first tradition is to clean the whole house thoroughly, sweeping away bad luck and preparing for the arrival of good. The brush is then put away, not to be used for the next few days just in case it brushes away the good luck that arrives with the new year.

Chinese couplets for Chinese new year

The ‘out with the old’ tradition is taken quite seriously, sometimes extending to redecorating entire homes, and shopping for new outfits for all the family. Houses are decorated with red banners on each side of the front door, often with traditional couplets or Chinese characters with messages of good fortune and harmony to usher in the new year.

Superstitions

There are plenty of superstitions which the Chinese faithfully observe in order to avoid the new year bringing bad luck or ill health, here are just a few:

  • Washing your hair on New Year’s Day, which - because the word for ‘hair’ sounds the same as the pronunciation of ‘wealth’ - would mean you would be washing all your wealth down the drain.

  • Before the festivities begin, a quick check of your rice stocks is wise, because an empty rice pot is thought of as a bad omen for the new year.

  • If a child starts crying on New Year’s Day, think of something to cheer them up fast, because children crying are believed to bring bad luck to the parents.

  • Don’t have porridge for breakfast on the first day of the new year, as this means you start the year poor, which foretells poverty.

The big day

On Chinese New Year’s Eve itself, the big family meal is at the heart of the occasion, much like a Thanksgiving or Christmas meal is of great importance. Known as the ‘reunion dinner’ family members gather and dine together on a variety of dishes, often including spring rolls, which represent prosperity, long noodles which represent longevity, and fish because the pronunciation is the same as the word for abundance. Frequently tables are laden with eight different dishes, as this is one of the most auspicious numbers in Chinese tradition.

Chinese New Year celebrations

Traditions

Another New Year’s custom is to set off strings of firecrackers, to dramatic and noisy effect which is supposed to scare off evil spirits. Lion dances are performed for similar reasons - in order to outsmart bad omens with a show of power. This lively dance usually involves a pair of acrobats who combine to become a brightly costumed lion, leaping and springing in some remarkable feats of strength and agility. It’s an impressive dance to watch, with the prancing lions keeping your attention to a soundtrack of gongs, drums and cymbals. It’s a fantastic spectacle combining elements of Chinese history, art, culture and martial arts.

Firecrackers in celebration of Chinese New Year

Gift giving

Similarly, while Christmas would not be complete without the exchanging of gifts, Chinese New Year celebrations would not be complete without the senior family members of the family handing out ‘red packets’ to young or unmarried relatives. The red packets are decorative envelopes in which money is given out as gifts, often in multiples of eight, and always even numbers. New notes are preferred for the red packets, again to represent the arrival of good fortune with the new year. The red colour is significant because in traditional Chinese culture, red is considered lucky, bringing serendipity and warding off evil spirits. The symbols displayed on the packet represent (and are believed to convey) happiness or prosperity to the receiver.

The grand finale

The fifteenth and last day of Chinese New Year is marked by the lantern festival, when families light paper lanterns and congregate outdoors to send the red lanterns skyward. It can be quite a moving sight to see so many glowing lanterns drifting up into the night sky on this day. Many families eat sweet rice balls served in a sweet broth on the fifteenth day, a day when young singles take advantage of the romance of the occasion to seek a new partner.

Chinese lanterns at Chinese New Year, the Lantern Festival

Today marks the start of a Year of the Dog. Chinese astrology assigns each year to one of the 12 zodiac animals. People born in a Dog year (roughly 2006, 1994, 1982, 1970, 1958, 1946, 1934) might want to note that numbers 3, 4 and 9 and combinations thereof are lucky, as are the colours red, green and purple. Avoid blue, white and gold, as well as the numbers 1, 6 and 7 as these are all deemed unlucky for Dogs.

Make it happen

The two week long Chinese New Year celebrations make a wonderful time to experience China, as long as you organise your travel arrangements well in advance and accept that travel hubs will be busy. The colours, sights, sounds and superstitions all play a part in the deep cultural significance of this celebration across the whole of China, and allow you to see the nation at play, relaxed and joyful. To begin planning your Chinese adventure, just pop some details into our enquiry form, and our local experts will design a bespoke itinerary according to your priorities. To speak to someone in the TravelLocal office please call +44 (0) 117 325 7898.
 

Forthcoming Chinese New Year dates:

2018 16th February (dog)

2019 5th February (pig)

2020 25th January (rat)

2021 12th February (ox)

2022 1st February (tiger)

2023 22nd January (rabbit)

2024 10th February (dragon)

2025 29th January (snake)

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