Chinese New Year, alternately known as Lunar New Year and often referred to as the Spring Festival, is very important (some sources say THE most important) festive holiday of the entire year. This holiday tradition is literally thousands of years old and its observance varies depending on region, local or family customs, and more.
The festival itself is celebrated for as many as 15 days in China and in Chinese communities including those in the United States.
Chinese New Year 2021 will be celebrated on Friday, February 12, 2021 and the festival will last until February 26th, about 15 days in total. 2021 is the Year of the Ox according to the Chinese zodiac calendar.
There is no fixed date as the celebrations focus on the new moon that appears within a window of time (as counted on the traditional Chinese lunar calendar) between January 21 and February 20 (as represented on western-oriented calendars). The celebration traditionally runs until the next new moon.
Chinese New Year is a time to pay respect to both ancestors and the gods. Some rituals are intended to pay tribute, others are intended to scare away malevolent entities, bad luck, and/or lingering negative effects from the previous year. A popular image from some Lunar New Year celebrations involves fireworks which are meant to scare away evil spirits, who are said to hate loud noises.
Many of these traditions are a bit opaque to westerners who may not understand how non-western spirituality operates. It can be dismissive to refer to the more spiritual traditions as a version of Christmas with a different kind of Santa Claus, but it’s equally dismissive to assume that all who participate in Chinese New Year actually believe they are scaring away demonic entities who would otherwise threaten them, etc.
Just as there is no such thing as a homogenous, unified “people” of any country, customs surrounding Chinese New Year in antiquity and in modern times vary depending on region, heritage, etc. Traditionally the time period is said to be one of the few parts of the year when farmers were able to rest from their work. In modern times citizens of China are commonly offered extended time off to celebrate.
The Chinese New Year Origin Story
The legend of the Spring Festival originates thousands of years ago. The story includes a village in a land far away which exists in harmony with the world around it, except for the problem of an annual visit by a fearsome creature called Nian.
No warrior can defeat the monster, the villagers pray to the gods for help, and with some divine intervention Nian is run off for the year. The Spring Festival, or Lunar New Year, is designed to continue warding off Nian, and some sources report a traditional saying during this time is “Guo Nian,” indicating another Nian-free year.
The origin story sounds fairly simple, but since ancient times Chinese New Year has evolved into an annual celebration that incorporates family reunions, preparation for the future year’s challenges and successes, and reinforces traditions in the culture.
How People Prepare For Chinese New Year
Getting ready for the Lunar Festival means starting early. As the holiday time draws near many spend time putting their affairs in order by paying off old debts, collecting on old debts, or otherwise settling things with creditors and debtors.
There is also, similar to western New Year’s traditions, some time to take stock of the year before and prepare for the one to come. Some people renew old relationships or get back in touch with long-lost family during this time.
There’s a physical component, too. Americans may recognize some of these preparations as “spring cleaning” but in Chinese culture that involves a spiritual component. Traditionally such cleaning was intended to chase away bad energies or evil entities. Today the cleaning has more to do with making one’s home as presentable as possible to visiting relatives who come calling for the holiday.
According to New York’s Columbia University, the 20th day of the 12th lunar month is considered the traditional day to sweep floors, but in some regions this could be delayed until the 24th.
Columbia.edu reports this time is traditionally viewed as the time when the God of the Hearth (alternately known to some as the Kitchen God) reports to the Jade Emperor in heaven about earthly doings. The delay of the start of spring cleaning has much to do with not wanting to offend the God of the Hearth before he makes his journey.
Gift Giving During Chinese New Year
One Lunar New Year tradition involves the exchange of gifts. Some gift giving is more highly specialized and symbolic than others; this is most obvious with the tradition of exchanging gifts that are red or packaged with red, which symbolizes prosperity, beauty, good fortune, etc. There are other colors that make similarly appropriate gifts; yellow and green.
Gift-giving traditions include not offering gifts of money that can be counted in fours or is displayed in fours; multiple Asian cultures (not just Chinese culture) have an issue with the number four as it is often the same or an adjacent word to the one that means “death.”
Giving a gift on Chinese New Year that displays or implies the number four can be potentially considered in the same bad taste as giving a loved one a bouquet of white lilies as a gift; bouquets of white lilies are an American funerary custom in many locales.
Customs On New Year’s Eve
The traditional Chinese New Year’s Eve celebration includes family reunions, feasting, and like many other such traditions, all-night celebrations depending on the region, local customs, etc. Traditionally, the Kitchen God/God of the Hearth is due to return on New Year’s Day and it is common to replace old images of the God with new ones on New Year’s Eve.
Businesses and homes may be decorated with red, yellow, and other symbolic colors that represent good fortune and happiness in the new year.
New year’s eve has some families making offerings to gods and ancestors, and it’s not unusual to “seal” a home with red paper to keep out last year’s old bad luck and keep the new year good luck from escaping the home. Homes may display memorial tablets honoring ancestors who have passed, and for children participating in such traditions comes with some gift giving in red New Year’s envelopes containing New Year’s money.
Some call such traditions “ancestor worship” but it’s far more complex than that; paying respect and honoring the memory of those who have left the earthly plane is a top priority in this context. “Worship” is a loaded word with many western connotations.
It’s best for westerners with little exposure to Asian customs to view these ceremonies as a spiritual form of paying respect and tribute rather than through the more western interpretation of worship in the monotheistic sense.
Once the offerings are made and tributes are rendered, Chinese families settle in to enjoy what some sources describe as the greatest meal of the entire year. Chinese families may set places at the table for those who could not return.
The food served has special significance as some traditions call for the selection of the menu to be symbolic in their names or how the food is displayed. Some foods are chosen on the basis of the names; fish, for example.
A common Chinese word for a whole fish is “yu” which also shares the pronunciation with another Chinese word meaning “abundance.” Another word in the Cantonese dialect is said to refer to good business; the word for oyster sounds similar and would be a likely candidate for inclusion in such a meal.
Other popular Chinese New Year foods and their symbolism include:
- Dumplings – wealth
- Spring rolls – wealth
- Sweet rice balls (tangyuan) – family togetherness
- Good fortune fruit (tangerines, oranges, and pomelos) – fullness and wealth
- Noodles – longevity
- Roasted pig – peace
- Eggs – healthy family
Some New Year’s traditions reserve certain foods for eating at midnight when the new year is rung in. Once the new year arrives it is customary to throw open the front door, unsealing it and lighting fireworks to usher in strong good luck and a prosperous time ahead.
New Year’s Day And After
More family visits are common on New Year’s Day, as is the serving of symbolically lucky food such as dates, lotus seeds, peanuts, date cakes, rice cakes, and a special tea called Yuan bao cha.
The days after New Year’s Eve are filled with observances (including an avoidance of the number four and things that imply the number four as a way to avoid invoking loss or bad luck in the new year), some families may make temple pilgrimages, and on the 15th day of the new lunar month there is a Lantern Festival which is another celebration that gathers family and involves traditional foods.
The Lantern Festival is what New Year’s Day is in the west; it is basically the final day of the Lunar New Year celebration time. The Lantern festival is significant, but smaller in scale than the Chinese New Year celebration.
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News
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