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Chinese New Year celebrations | © IQRemix/Flickr
Chinese New Year celebrations | © IQRemix/Flickr

Chinese New Year: Meaning, History And Traditions

Picture of Michaela Fulton
Updated: 25 November 2016
Once upon a time there was a terrible giant beast, Nian, who used to torment a village and swallow children in a single bite. Every year he would appear, and every year the villagers would hide and pray for their safety. Deliverance from this beast came only when villagers finally discovered that Nian was afraid of loud noises and the color red. To defeat this monster, they began to light bamboo sticks and used the color red on both themselves and their doorways to frighten the monster away. Since then, this day has been named Guo Nian (‘guo’ meaning pass and ‘nian’ meaning year) – ‘to pass over the year.’ So, now, Chinese consider this day as an auspicious one, as it brought them new life and salvation.

This is just one version of the origin of Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival, said to have begun during the Shang Dynasty (1766–1122 BC). Some believe that it may have begun even earlier than that. Although there are a number of small variations of this story that give a depiction of the reasons why Chinese follow their current traditions, the main reasons why Spring Festival is celebrated now are to celebrate a year of hard work; to have a good rest; to relax with family, and to wish for a prosperous new year. It is one of the longest public holidays in China, where most are off work for seven consecutive days.

“No work; no school; no excuse. It is a time to get together and feel the warmth of family bonds.” – Cloud, 18

Based on the lunar calendar, Chinese New Year normally falls between January 21st and February 20th, and as with many festivals throughout the world, it is believed that how you spend the start of the year affects its outcome. Although it seems that some of the respect for old traditions are slowly on the decline with the younger generation in urban areas, there are a still a number of traditional practices that are followed during this joyful time.

“I like getting the red packet.” – Alice, 11

Food & Drink

Food plays an important role during Chinese New Year, and there are a number of dishes that are eaten to bring good luck to families. The New Year’s Eve dinner is the most important meal in the festival, similar to that of the Christmas Day dinner in Western countries, as it is considered the ‘reunion meal’ for the family, where several generations will often gather together around the dinner table to enjoy each others company. Spring Festival is renowned for the mass migration of people throughout China, as thousands upon thousands of people will travel long distances to ensure they make it home for this special time with their loved ones – even if it means standing on a packed train for more than 20 hours.

Though traditional dishes can vary from home to home and province to province, the ideas behind each item and what they represent remain the same.

‘During Spring Festival, in my hometown, my grandpa would kill a pig, meaning we would eat meat throughout the whole of the New Year.’ – Pauline, 27

A few staple dishes include:

Fish (与): eaten for good luck, fish symbolizes surplus for the forthcoming year. It is said that this should be the last dish eaten, but not completely, in order to represent the coming surplus (be it money, food, health…).

Dumplings (Jiaozi – 饺子): these are very traditional in China, but most popular in the northern provinces of the country. Made from finely chopped meat and vegetables in a thin skin of dough, they are made to look like silver ingots symbolizing money. The more you eat, the more money you will (hopefully!) get.

Niangao (年糕): a traditional New Year cake. Made using sticky rice, dates, sugar, and lotus leaves, this is said to represent the notion of increased fortune year after year.

Tangyuan (汤圆): sweet, small balls (almost like dumplings) made out of glutinous rice flour that are cooked and served in soup. The round shape of these balls represents the unity of a family and the act of coming together as one during this important time.

Décor and Housekeeping

Walk through any street in China and you are bound to see an abundance of hanging lanterns, couplets, and paper cuttings pasted on doors to ward off evil and bring good fortune to the household – all of which are doused in the color red. Even banks and official buildings within cities will have their exteriors covered in red and gold material to ensure a prosperous new year. Most of these paper cuttings and couplets will feature the Chinese word ‘fu‘ (福) meaning good fortune, or luck.

In addition to the decorations, families will clean every corner of their home in order to sweep out the ‘chen‘ (old), which in turn removes any bad luck from the previous year.

“For me, it’s a new beginning. A time to reflect on the past year, and make wishes for the new in the hopes for a brighter future for my family. – Lily, 38

Cultural Activities & Traditions

Shou Sui ( 守岁)

Parallel to those who celebrate New Year in the Gregorian calendar, after their big reunion meal, families will stay up until midnight to welcome in the New Year and watch, or even launch, fireworks and firecrackers. These are lit in remembrance of the mythical beast, Nian, who was defeated in the ancient tale, to drive away evil, and to celebrate the arrival of the New Year.

Red Packets (Hong Bao – 红包)

These envelopes are filled with money and given to children as a symbol of good luck and protection from a legendary ghost, Sui, who was said to appear on New Year’s Eve and curse children by touching their heads. In the past, parents would place coins tied together with red string and place them under the pillows of their child for protection. Now, the act of simply giving red packets is sufficient enough – with the paper money and the envelope representing the coins and string respectively.

“It’s an important time for family bonding. When you have relatives living in different provinces, we can only see each other during this festival. So the reunion dinner is the most important part. And of course I like getting the hong bao.” – Wise, 15

New Clothes

Chinese believe that everything should be new for New Years, to represent a new start, and so people will often wear new clothes on the first day of the New Year. Red is the color of choice during festivals and important events, as it stands for health, wealth, and happiness; you would be shocked at the sheer amount of red underwear readily available in local supermarkets as soon as Spring Festival appears on the horizon.

Visiting Friends and Family

A social activity for New Year’s Day, people will put on their aforementioned new clothes to visit friends and family to wish them well.

“When I was young, my favorite thing was wearing new clothes and receiving the red packets from my relatives. Now, my favorite thing is getting together with my family and simply talking with them.” – Pauline, 27

Dragon and Lion Dances

The dragon and lion have become symbols of Chinese culture, as they are believed to bring good luck. Performed with the accompaniment of beating drums and clashing cymbals, these performances have become a popular art form for people to watch, although these kinds of performances are more frequently held in larger cities such as Shanghai, Beijing, and Hong Kong.

Digital Age Traditions

Of course, today’s society is a tech-obsessed society, so there are a few new traditions that have become more popular with the younger generation – most notably, cyber money gifts. These are small digital red envelopes that can be sent to loved ones through social messaging services (such as WeChat), in which you can include money and send good wishes.

Another modern tradition is the CCTV Gala – an art and performance event, featuring popular celebrities, that many stay up to watch on TV during New Year’s Eve as they count down the hours to midnight.

Overall thoughts on Spring Festival?

For some, family bonding is the most important aspect of Spring Festival – especially for those with relatives living in different provinces, across the vast country, as time with family is precious. With no work and no school, there is no excuse, and they will do anything they can to make it home for this annual event that allows them to come together. The sheer mass of people that can be seen at airports, bus and railway stations alike is suffocating.

“I once had to stand in a crowded train for over 20 hours just to get back to my hometown for Spring Festival, but it was worth it. Time with family is precious.” – Victor, 23

For others, especially the younger generation, not only do they enjoy the fact that they can play with relatives or friends without the worry of school but also get to enjoy the indulgence of food as well as receiving the lucky red packets.

Above all, they see this festive period as a significant time symbolizing a new beginning – a time to reflect on the past and hope for a brighter future for their families.

Gong Xi Fa Cai!