A week before the new year, it is traditional for Chinese households to give offerings to a deity known as the Kitchen God, the protector of the home. A paper image of the Kitchen God is burned on this day, sending the deity’s spirit to heaven to report on the moral conduct of the household to the Jade Emperor.
In the north, this festival is celebrated on the 23rd day of the twelfth lunar month, whereas in the south, it’s celebrated on the 24th. It is said that this difference stems from the fact that historically, xiaonian was celebrated on the 23rd by government officials and the imperial court, whereas the 24th was reserved for ordinary citizens. Before the Southern Song period (1127–1279), China’s imperial capital was located in the north, which is why northerners inherited the tradition of celebrating xiaonian on the 23rd.
On New Year’s Eve, Chinese families gather under one roof to ring in the new year together. Southern Chinese families spend this day having a sumptuous homemade feast, conversing well into the night around the dinner table.
In the north, families traditionally spend the day hand-wrapping dumplings together, as well as crowding around the television to watch the annual CCTV New Year’s Gala. The program draws an audience of 700 million viewers every year, featuring dance, music, drama and comedic skits.
In the south, steamed fish is a must-have at the New Year’s Eve dinner table. The Chinese word for fish, yu, sounds similar to the word for ‘surplus,’ which is why eating fish is considered auspicious—especially in the coastal south, which enjoys a rich seafood tradition.
In contrast, northern dishes are more likely to feature pork than fish. For instance, minced pork is used as a dumpling filling along with sugar, peanuts, dates and even real coins, signifying prosperity.
In the north, the dumplings that were wrapped on New Year’s Eve are consumed on New Year’s Day. Eating dumplings is considered a prosperous omen, because the curved shape of a dumpling resembles a traditional gold ingot.
Southerners, on the other hand, favor making niangao, a kind of pellet-shaped cake made from glutinous rice, as well as tangyuan, a rice ball dessert with a sweet filling, usually of ground sesame.
Customarily, a married woman spends New Year’s with her husband’s family, and returns to her parents’ home on the second day of the lunar calendar to have lunch.
In the north, a familiar saying dictates that dumplings are eaten on the first day of the year, and noodles on the second. The smooth texture of noodles is meant to represent a smooth year ahead.
Meanwhile, in the south—particularly in Cantonese-speaking regions such as Guangzhou and Hong Kong—the second day of the new year is marked by another big feast dubbed kai nian fan, which can be eaten at home or with friends or work colleagues.
On the fifth day of the new year, shops and businesses reopen. In the north, the reopening is accompanied by firecrackers in order to chase away evil spirits and get rid of the bad luck of the past year, whereas in the south, employers traditionally hand out “red packets” containing cash to their subordinates (see below for more details).
Red packets, known as hongbao in Mandarin and lai see in Cantonese, are cash gifts presented by senior family members to unmarried junior ones. In the north, the amount of money given tends to be larger. ¥100 RMB ($15 USD) is generally the minimum amount, while very close kin, such as a grandchild, might receive upwards of ¥1000 RMB (150 USD) or more.
In the south, red packet amounts are smaller as a rule, starting at around ¥10 RMB or so. However, while northerners tend to give red packets only to their family members, the circle of recipients is much wider in the south, where etiquette dictates that red packets should be given to any service workers you come into contact regularly—for instance, doormen, cleaners, security guards, hairdressers and so on. As mentioned above, bosses are also expected to give red packets to employees in the south.
Ceremonial folk dances are usually performed in the streets during Chinese New Year. Lion and dragon dances are common in southern China, especially in Hong Kong. A lion dance is performed by two dancers hidden inside a lion costume. The more majestic dragon dance requires a troupe of multiple dancers to manipulate a colorful, undulating dragon body.
In northern provinces, you can expect to see the yangge dance, which is performed by brightly-costumed dancers to the sound of drums and gongs, as well as dances and athletic feats performed on stilts.
In the south, families traditionally visit a temple during the new year to pay respects to their ancestors. In addition to lighting incense and praying for good fortune in the year to come, they may bring offerings of food and set off firecrackers.
In comparison, the customs of northerners are relatively simple. On New Year’s Eve, northerners burn incense and joss paper for their ancestors in their own homes. Sometimes, they will kneel in front of their ancestor’s memorial and place an offering of food before it.
Lastly, northerners and southerners have slightly different decorating habits. In the north, it is common to put up intricate and beautiful paper cuttings made from scarlet paper. On the other hand, southerners prefer to display potted kumquat and miniature orange trees, as well as flowers such as orchids and peonies.