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Dancing Dragon | © Shriram Rajagopalan/Flickr

10 Rituals and Customs to Celebrate Chinese New Year

Picture of Sally Gao
Sally Gao
Updated: 27 January 2017
Chinese New Year is the most significant holiday on the Chinese calendar. Apart from being a time to feast and reunite with family, the festivities are accompanied by a large array of customs and rituals. Here’s a quick introduction to some of the most significant Chinese New Year traditions.

Family Reunion Dinner

Typically, families will gather for a sumptuous reunion dinner on New Year’s Eve. A big homemade meal with multiple dishes, including steamed fish is prepared. The tradition of eating fish during the New Year stems from the fact that the Chinese word for “surplus” or “profit” sounds similar to the word for fish. Thus, it is believed that eating fish will bring wealth in the new year.

Family Feast | © Blowing Puffer Fish/Flickr

Family Feast | © Blowing Puffer Fish/Flickr

Red Envelopes

Red envelopes are cash gifts that are given by senior family members to their junior relations, and can range from a few dollars to quite hefty amounts. Usually, they are given from adults to children, and from married couples to their younger, unmarried family members. It is also customary for bosses to present them to employees.

Lucky red envelopes | © Jon C/Flickr

Lucky red envelopes | © Jon C/Flickr

Firecrackers and Fireworks

New Year festivities just wouldn’t be the same without pyrotechnics. New Year’s firecrackers are made from strings of rolled red paper containing gunpowder that, when set off, leave  shreds of scarlet paper their wake. Traditionally, it is believed that the loud noise of the firecrackers serves to scare away evil spirits, although nowadays firecrackers are banned in many cities for safety reasons.

In addition, most major cities, including Hong Kong and Shanghai, will put up an impressive display of fireworks around midnight to welcome in the new year.

Chinese firecrackers | © kanegen/Flickr

Chinese firecrackers | © kanegen/Flickr

Lion and Dragon Dances

This colorful traditional dance, which is said to bring good luck, is performed outdoors to the accompaniment of drums and cymbals, sometimes as a street parade. Dragon dances are performed by a troupe of acrobatic dancers, whereas lion dances are performed by just two dancers.

A lion dance in progress | © shankar s./Flickr

A lion dance in progress | © shankar s./Flickr

Decorating

You can always tell when Chinese New Year is around the corner because of the festive scarlet decor adorning every street, storefront and home. The color red is ubiquitous, because it is associated with wealth and good fortune in Chinese culture. Red lanterns are hung on the streets, while windows and doors are decorated with posters and papers bearing auspicious characters or phrases. Chinese knots, potted kumquats and golden orange trees are also common.

New Year decorations |© Brian Jeffery Beggerly/Flickr

New Year decorations |© Brian Jeffery Beggerly/Flickr

House Cleaning

Customarily, families give their homes a thorough cleaning in the days leading up to New Day’s Day. Windows are scrubbed, floors are swept and furniture is dusted in preparation for the new year, sweeping away away the bad luck of the past year. In addition, dusting is avoided on New Year’s Day, for fear that good fortune will be swept away.

Eating Niangao, Mandarin Oranges and Dumplings

In northern China, dumplings are a popular food during Chinese New Year. In the south, it’s more common to see niangao, a chewy pellet made from glutinous rice. Mandarin oranges, which are considered a symbol of good fortune, are also commonly eaten, displayed and gifted.

A plate of fried niangao | © Alpha/Flickr

A plate of fried niangao | © Alpha/Flickr

New Year’s Markets

As the New Year approaches, open-air markets selling decorations, red envelopes, toys, clothes and trinkets are a frenzy of activity. In Hong Kong and Macau, where it is a tradition to give flowers for Chinese New Year, street markets are also teeming with flowers and potted plants. Flowers such as orchids, peonies and narcissus are popular because they are considered especially auspicious.

Praying at the Temple

The Lunar New Year season is a busy time for Chinese temples. Worshippers typically visit the temple on the third day of the New Year to light incense and pray to the deities for blessings and good luck in the year ahead. Many major temples will also put on festive dragon and lion dances in the courtyard.

Burning incense | © Warren R.M. Stuart/Flickr

Burning incense | © Warren R.M. Stuart/Flickr

Shopping

Last but not least, Chinese New Year sees a surge in retail every year thanks to holiday sales. The closer to New Year’s Day, the deeper the discounts get, including discounts on Spring season items that have just hit the racks.