Chinese New Year - More than 4000 years of history, traditions and customs
More than 20% of the world celebrate Chinese New, the most important holiday in China.
Some people compare it with Christmas, but despite some similarities between these two celebrations regarding gathering family and friends, eating more than regular days and long holidays, the customs and symbolisms are very different.
The Chinese New Year (CNY), also known as the Spring Festival, has more than 4,000 years of history and is the longest holiday of the year.
In China, you’ll hear it being called chunjie (春节), or the Spring Festival. It’s still very wintry, but the holiday marks the end of the coldest days. People welcome spring and what it brings along: planting and harvests, new beginnings and fresh starts.
You can also call it the Lunar New Year because countries such as North and South Korea and Vietnam celebrate it as well. And because the Spring Festival goes according to the lunar calendar. Which means there’s no set date for Chinese New Year.
In 2021, Chinese New Year begins on February 12th and ends February 26th with the Lantern Festival.
Traditionally, you have to spend time with your family and can only go out after the 5th day. It’s a national holiday. The large majority of stores are closed too.
So in the month before, people will buy nian huo (年货), or New Year’s products. The Chinese stock up on cooking supplies, snacks, gifts, new clothes and more.
The Spring Festival was originally a ceremonial day to pray to gods for a good planting and harvest season. As an agrarian society, the harvest was everything. People also prayed to their ancestors, as they were treated as gods (see Mulan for reference).
But the myths are much more interesting. According to one legend, there was a monster named Nian (年). It would come about every New Year’s Eve. Most people would hide in their homes. But one boy was brave enough to fight him off using firecrackers. The next day, people celebrated their survival by setting off even more firecrackers. And that practice became a crucial part of the Spring Festival.
The most fireworks are set off in the world that night
As in the myth about Nian, firecrackers are supposed to scare off monsters and bad luck. So people stay up on Chinese New Year’s Eve and set off firecrackers at midnight. In the morning, firecrackers are used again to welcome the new year and good luck.
That same night, families also burn fake paper money and printed gold bars in honour of their deceased loved ones. Similar to the Korean Chuseok holiday or the Mexican Day of the Dead traditions, they believe the offerings will bring fortune and good luck to their ancestors in the afterlife.
They have many taboos like
Haircutting (before February 2)
Using scissors, knives and other sharp things
Saying unlucky words (such as “death” and “sickness”)
Showering isn’t allowed New Years Day.
Sweeping isn’t allowed on New Years Day to make sure you don’t wash away the good luck! On the other hand, there’s a day before the Spring Festival dedicated to cleaning. This day is to sweep the bad luck away and make room for the good.
They throw away old things and by new ones.
They wear new clothes on New Years Day.
You should wear something red or gold, never white as it's colour reserved for funerals)
Do they have gifts?
In other cultures, children receive gifts for holidays. Gifts are also exchanged during the Spring Festival. But Chinese children receive something else too, the Ang Bao, a red or gold envelope with money (do not take a standard white envelope from your desk, remember about the white colour).
This money is supposed to help transfer the fortune from the elders to the kids.
They can also be given between bosses and employees, co-workers, singles and friends.
But, at least in Singapore, money must be new (so banks are bustling during these days distributing new money) Give always even numbers, never odd numbers and never the number four (which sounds like death in mandarin). Numbers like 8, 18, 28, 38...88 are the best. Number 8 is one of the luckiest numbers for Chinese people.
If you don't want to give money, you can also buy special cookies as gifts, like the pineapple tarts (so yummy!)
Oranges, mandarines, why everyone give each other?
Tangerine sounds like Gold in mandarin and orange sound like Good Luck, so people bring two mandarines or oranges as a symbol of wishing you wealth and fortune.
Traditional delicious dishes and desserts for CNY
China is huge; therefore, different traditional dishes are depending on the area. But the main ones are noodles (long ones as a symbol of long life) served in bowls, seafood, spring rolls, steamed fish, dumplings, soups... find more here.
As you probably found out, everything has a symbol. Some symbolic vegetables to consider are:
Seaweed: symbolize wealth and fortune
Lotus seeds: a blessing for many children and a healthy family
Bamboo shoots: represent longevity, as well as going onward and up
Muskmelon and grapefruit: symbolize family and hope. Besides, grapefruit symbolizes wealth and prosperity.
Osmanthus flower petals: in Chinese, osmanthus (桂 / guì) is a homophone 贵, which means noble and precious.
Leek/chives: leek (韭 / jiǔ) sounds similar to 久, meaning long and everlasting
Poria mushrooms: another play on words, this mushroom (茯苓 / fú líng) sounds similar to 福禄 (fú lù), or blessings and fortune
But what about sweets?
Although dinners use to end with a fruit plate, they also have unique desserts and sweets. So many Chinese New Year desserts have special meanings behind them. And it’s mostly puns in the name.
Take the tangyuan, for example. It literally means “soup balls.” But it sounds like tuanyuan (团圆), which means reunion. So it’s no surprise it’s a popular dessert during Chinese New Year.
Nian gao (年糕) is a type of rice cake. It symbolizes success every year.
Fa gao (发糕) is a hybrid of sponge cakes and muffins. People dye its festive colours. The fa is the same as in fa cai (发财), which means “to get rich.” And everyone wants that!
Red Red Red! Everywhere!
Every family will deck their homes in this colour. Do you remember the story about Nian? Firecrackers aren’t the only thing that scared the monster away. Red is also an invaluable weapon and used in nearly all Chinese New Year decorations.
The Chinese will hang up red lanterns and strings of (real or fake) chilli peppers, paste red paper onto doors and windows, and more!
The Year of the Ox
CNY marks the transition between zodiac signs: 2021 is the year of the Ox; 2020 was the year of the Rat. And definitely, we were all hidden like rats due to the pandemic!
If you want to know what is your Chinese zodiac sign click here
The New Year greeting in Chinese is “xin nian kuai le”
The phrase literally means “Happy New Year.” But in Hong Kong and other Cantonese-speaking regions, it’s more common to say “gong hei fat choy.” In Mandarin Chinese, it’s “gong xi fa cai” (恭喜发财). It means “congratulations on the fortune.”
So Wolols wish you a Happy New Lunar Year!
Want some crafts ideas and inspiration to celebrate Chinese New Year? Then visit our Special Chinese New Year Activities.
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