Chinese Lunar New Year

Chinese New Years, alternately known as Spring Festival or Lunar New Year is the most important Chinese holiday. The New Year festival begins on the day of the new moon which is the first day of the first month of the Chinese year. Chinese New Years ends on the full moon 15 days later culminating in a traditional Lantern Festival.  Each Lunar New Year has an animal of the Chinese zodiac associated with it.  2012 was the Year of the Dragon and 2013 will be the Year of the Snake.

The Traditional Chinese Lunar Calendar

The Chinese lunar calendar has been in use for centuries and predates the International Calendar, based upon the Gregorian calendar and used by most of the rest of the world. The calendar uses a 12-year cycle. 12 animals are used to symbolize each of the 12 years. According to legend, the Lord Buddha requested all the animals to come to a meeting on Chinese New Year. Only twelve came, and therefore The Buddha named a year after each of them. 2012 for example is the Year of the Dragon and Chinese New Year 2013 will be the Year of the Snake.  If you have snake trouble you may want to go to a Chinese temple to make an offering at that time.

Chinese Paper LanternsChinese New Year is celebrated in many countries throughout the world with large Chinese populations. It is an official holiday in many countries in Asia including Mainland China, Indonesia, Hong Kong SAR, Malaysia, Taiwan, Macau, Singapore, and Vietnam.

Western nations such as the United States, Australia and Canada do not recognize Chinese New Year as an official holiday, however major celebrations and festivities take place in the larger cities with ‘Chinatowns’ or significant Chinese immigrant populations.  The national postal services in these countries traditionally issue Chinese New Year stamps featuring the animal symbolizing each particular year. 

Traditions of Chinese New Years

Regional Chinese New Years customs and traditions involving the celebration of the holiday vary widely.  However there are traditional customs familiar to most Chinese throughout the world who celebrate the holiday.

Traditionally families will thoroughly clean their houses prior to the beginning of the New Year to symbolically sweep away any bad luck in hopes of a prosperous new year. Entrances to homes and business are often decorated with red banners and gold characters showing Chinese couplets written in Chinese calligraphy. The red banners are displayed at the sides and top of the main entrance. Typically these will have as their themes ‘happiness’, ‘long life’ and ‘wealth’.

On Chinese New Years’ Eve families will gather together for a feast which often includes such foods as fish, pork, duck, chicken, sticky rice balls, noodles and sweet desserts. Many foods are symbolic such as the noodles which symbolize long life. Families may end the night by setting off fireworks. In some households they may stay awake the entire night, often playing mahjong to pass the time. On the eve of the new year, or the next morning, children will wish their parents and other elders in the family a happy new year and receive red envelopes from them. The red envelope contains money in amounts considered to be auspicious numbers. For example 400 or 4000 in currency would never be given as the number four has a similar sound to the word for death in Mandarin Chinese.

Children are also often given new clothing for Chinese New Years and adults purchase new clothing as well to symbolize the Lunar New Year. The succeeding days of Chinese New Years festivities are then occupied with visits to relatives and friends or staying home with the family and receiving visitors themselves.

The 15th day of the Lunar New Year is the new moon. This is the final day of Chinese New Year and is the day of the Lantern Festival. This is celebrated at night with lantern displays. Traditionally children would carry lanterns, often made by themselves or their families, in a parade.

Chinese New Years is a festive and widely celebrated holiday and is a time of optimism and joy. It has a festive feeling similar to that of Christmas to those more familiar with western traditions. If you have Chinese friends and are lucky enough to be invited to participate in a Chinese New Year celebration don’t pass up the chance. You may also want consider preparing some red envelopes if children will be present.  It also gives you a reason to learn Chinese - and say Gong Xi Fa Zai!