The Chinese New Year (Nónglì Xinnián in pinyin), also known as the Spring Festival, is the most important of the traditional Chinese holidays. In the pinyin name, the “-nian” in there means “year,” but it is derived from the name of a ferocious beast in Chinese mythology. Keep in mind for the following story that the Chinese years are based on the moon phase and the time of the solar year; it is a lunisolar calendar.
The new year would fall on different dates each year for many of us in the Western world, because we follow the Gregorian calendar. Basically, the Chinese New Year falls on the second new moon after the day of the winter solstice (shortest day/longest night of the year); it can (rarely) fall on the third new moon after the winter solstice if an intercalary month occurs.
For this story, we’ll refer to it as the new year:
Legend has it that that in ancient times, a nian would come annually around the eve of the new year to the village (some say it was called “Peach-Blossom Village”) and ransack it in search of food, eating whatever it could get its paws on. The villagers were terrified of this beast and would hide in the mountains for safety.
One year, just before the nian’s expected arrival, an old man came to the village and told a certain woman he knew how to scare the nian away; he asked for a place to stay in return. The woman told him that he was foolish to try to stay in the village when the nian’s arrival was imminent, as she didn’t believe him, and urged him to join her and the other villagers to accompany them into the mountains to hide. He refused, and they left without him.
The nian came, but the old man was prepared. He had posted red banners and lanterns on the doorposts of the woman’s home, which startled the beast, as it was afraid of the color red. It was also quite afraid of loud noises, and the man set off some firecrackers that he had set up around the area. The beast was terrified and ran away.
When the villagers returned from hiding, they were amazed to find the village still intact. Each year after that, they have put up red banners on their doors and lit fireworks to keep the monster at bay.
There are many variations of this legend of the nian. Some say that the old man also beat a drum and other noisemakers in addition to the firecrackers. One account of the story says that the man left before the villagers returned, and that they only learned of the proper scare tactics with the tools he left behind; another says he stayed and explained.
The description of the beast also varies; some say it had the body of a bull, the head of a lion, and a horn as a unicorn, and others say it resembled more-similarly a sea dragon. Despite all these slight differences, the gist of the story remains the same, and is why the Chinese New Year traditions are full of the color red, lights, firecrackers, and other noisemakers.