Chinese New Year: Quick Introduction to an Important Chinese Holiday

Summary:

Curious as to what the Chinese New Year holiday is all about? In this guide, we give you all the basics, with traditions, customs, myths, and more.

On January 25th, the Chinese New Year takes place, ringing in the Year of the Rat.

As one of the most important holidays for the people of China, as well as for the Chinese diaspora elsewhere, it’s important to understand the Chinese New Year.

So, in this article, we’ll aim to do just that.

dragon dance on chinese new year festival
The dragon dance is a traditional Chinese cultural dance, often performed on Chinese New Year. Taken by P. Bernardon via unsplash.com. [Public Domain].

What is Chinese New Year?

Though the Chinese officially use the Gregorian calendar for business, government, etc., the traditional Chinese calendar, also known as the farming calendar or agricultural calendar, is still used for important holidays, including the Chinese New Year.

The Chinese New Year is technically a single day; however, the Chinese New Year holiday takes place over more than 2 weeks, from Chinese New Year’s Eve through to the Lantern Festival on the 15th day of the new year. These 16 days can collectively be called the Spring Festival, in addition to being referred to as the Chinese New Year.

The first month of the year in the Chinese calendar is Zhengyue, which is when most of the Chinese New Year holiday takes place (aside from the eve).

When is Chinese New Year?

In 2020, the Chinese New Year happens on January 25.

Since the Chinese calendar is a lunisolar affair, it is governed by moon phases and is related to the sun. Chinese New Year starts on the new moon that happens sometime between January 21 and February 20 on the Gregorian calendar. However, Chinese New Year festivities begin the night before, on Chinese New Year’s Eve.

Related Read: Why Does February Have Only 28 Days?

Chinese New Year Traditions & Customs

There is a lot of mythology, folklore, and customs associated with the Chinese New Year, but the most important story is the legend of the nian. The nian was a ferocious beast in Chinese mythology, and its name even makes up part of the word for Chinese New Year – Nónglì Xinnián in pinyin.

Other Chinese New Year customs include:

Red Envelopes

Red envelopes, almost always containing a little money, are commonly traded during the holiday. Gifting someone a red envelope would bring the giver good luck, and it is common and not impolite for people to request a red packet from someone else.

Red Lanterns

Chinese lanterns for warding off against nian Chinese new year
This place is well-protected against a nian attack. Taken by Wikimedia Commons user North sea deamer.

Red lanterns were used to scare away the nian in the legendary story, as the beast was supposedly afraid of the color red. During Chinese New Year, if you’re lucky enough to be around any of the celebrations, you’ll see beautiful red lanterns lit up and hanging from everything.

Fireworks

Some variations of the nian story say that the old man who scared away the large beast did so with the help of fireworks, explosives, and other noisemakers. The nian, scared of the firecrackers, ran from the village and left it unharmed. Thus, fireworks are used during the new year’s festivities in honor of that legend. However, not many holidays are complete without fireworks, right? So there’s that, as well.

Exchanging Presents

Gifts are usually passed along from both married people to unmarried people and from older folks to the younger ones. Chinese New Year gifts are usually edible in nature, such as cakes or fruits, and they’re often presented upon visiting someone else’s home during the holiday.

The Spring Festival, Day by Day

Since the Chinese New Year happens over the course of a half-month, we’ll break down the holiday day-by-day and look at some common festivities:

Chinese New Year’s Eve

Just as with the Vietnamese New Year, a reunion dinner is held on the eve of Chinese New Year. This reunion dinner, consisting of several meat dishes, gathers the family together and serves as an offering for a happy and successful new year. Many people consider the reunion dinner to be the most important meal of the Chinese calendar, similar to Thanksgiving in the US.

Chinese New Year’s Day

The actual New Year’s day in the Chinese calendar is all about creating a ruckus. Fireworks go off, sticks of bamboo are burned, and other noisemakers are brought out to chase away the evil nian and other spirits.

Day #15 – Lantern Festival

The Lantern Festival comes about on the 15th day of the new year in China, and it is the final day of the China New Year festivities. Children go out during the evening carrying their paper lanterns, many of them red in color. The brighter the lantern, the more hope and luck one supposedly had. Lantern-holders also get to solve riddle games located within the intricate designs of some lanterns.

Well, that’s all we have on the Chinese New Year for now. We hope it gave you a basic, preliminary understanding on one of China’s most revered holidays. Got any questions, feedback, or more things to add to our guide? Let us know in the comments below, and thanks for reading!

Christian Eilers
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Christian Eilers
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