Lunar New Year is the most important celebration in China and venerated across other Asian cultures as well, a fact that often goes missing in western interpretations of the event. Lasting for 15 days, the festival is packed with culture, well-wishes, and plenty of good food.
If you’re curious about the Lunar New year, here’s a glimpse into the traditions and customs of the festival, and some advice on how to prepare for and celebrate the holiday.
Chinese New Year is the annual celebration of spring that consists of two weeks of festivities, with most activities taking place on New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day, and during the Lantern Festival (the closing day of celebrations).
The date of Chinese New Year changes every year, as it is based on the lunar calendar (for 2021, New Year’s Day falls on February 12th). While the Western Gregorian calendar is based on the Earth’s orbit around the sun, the date of Chinese New Year is determined by the moon’s orbit around the Earth. Chinese New Year always falls on the second new moon after the winter solstice. Thus, Chinese New Year is sometimes referred to as the Lunar New Year or the Spring Festival. Each lunar year also has a corresponding animal from the Chinese Zodiac (2021 will be the Year of the Ox).
The two main objectives of the festival are to celebrate a year of hard work and wish for a lucky and prosperous year ahead. It is widely believed that a good start to the year will lead to a lucky year and, therefore, what you choose to do on the first day of the lunar year affects your luck for the rest of the year.
A BIT OF HISTORY
The centuries-old legend of the origin of Chinese New Year varies from teller to teller, but they all include a story about a mythical monster who preyed on villagers. The lion-like monster’s name was Nian, which is also the Chinese word for “year.” The stories also include a wise old man who advises the villagers to ward off Nian by making loud noises with drums and firecrackers, and by hanging red scrolls from their doors. In the end, the villagers take the wise man’s advice and Nian is conquered. On the anniversary of the date, the Chinese recognize the “passing of the Nian,” known in Chinese as guo nian, which is synonymous with celebrating the new year.
Reunion and togetherness are the main sentiments of the Chinese New Year festival, so most people make the journey back to their hometowns to celebrate with their families. This triggers the world’s largest human migration (aka the “spring movement”), as hundreds of millions flood China’s roads and public transportation networks. After what can be a long and arduous journey, the festivities begin, and many partake in “spring cleaning,” put up decorations, and buy new clothing for the new year celebrations.
There are many cultural activities arranged during the festival: firecrackers are lit, drums can be heard on the streets, red lanterns glow at night, and paper cutouts are hung from doorways. Although rural areas and small towns retain more traditional celebrations compared to urban areas, the major cities hold Chinese New Year parades with dragon and lion dances.
On the first day of the new year, individuals greet one another with “gongxi” (pronounced gong-shee), which translates to “respectful joy” or “best wishes.” This greeting is used to wish good luck and happiness to others for the new year. It is also customary for younger generations to visit their elders and wish them health and longevity on this day.
Like Christmas in the West, gifts are exchanged during Chinese New Year. The most common of these gifts are red envelopes filled with money. The red envelopes are used to symbolize the hope and good luck given to their receivers.
Certain foods are eaten during the festival, especially during New Year’s Eve dinner. Fish is a must for new year celebrations, as the Chinese word for fish sounds similar to the word for surplus. Because of this, eating fish is believed to bring a surplus of money and good luck in the coming year. Other holiday delicacies include dumplings, spring rolls, glutinous rice cakes, and sweet rice balls.
Lion and Dragon Dances
The dragon dance is a traditional dance performed by a team who manipulates a long, flexible figure of a dragon using poles. Chinese dragons are a symbol of the country, and they are believed to bring good luck to all people; therefore, the longer the dragon’s figure, the more luck it will bring to the community. The lion dance, however, is a dance in which performers mimic the animal’s movements in a lion costume to bring good luck and good fortune. Both are commonly performed on New Year’s Day.
Visiting a temple during Chinese New Year is said to be a particularly blessed activity, which will lead to a smooth year ahead. In Shanghai, China’s largest city, thousands flock to Longhua Temple on New Year’s Day to ask for good fortune.
It is a long-held Chinese tradition to set off firecrackers when the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve. The tradition is to set off one string of small firecrackers first, followed by three larger firecrackers, which symbolize “sounding out” the old year and “sounding in” the new year. The idea behind it is: the louder the three firecrackers, the luckier the coming year will be.
As it is customary to believe that the start of the year affects the whole of the year, there are many superstitions associated with Spring Festival season. These taboos usually apply up to a month before the festival begins and continue until the end of the celebrations. Although there is a long list, the most noteworthy of them all is the belief that wearing red underwear will ward off bad luck and misfortune. So, you heard it first — red underwear is a must for 2021.
WHERE TO CELEBRATE
The most talked about aspect of Chinese New Year in Beijing can be found in the city’s many parks, where various temple fairs display different cultural themes. These fairs offer an inside look at local customs and imperial cultures, as well as a chance to purchase local products and snacks.
Because of its history, Xi’an pays more attention to the traditional aspects of the festival. Well before the holiday begins, the Xi’an City Wall is decorated with lanterns, and the city’s Tang West Market and Small Wild Goose Pagoda offer lion dances, paper-cutting, figurine-making, and other cultural heritage shows.
Since Harbin is covered with snow during the New Year season, the city boasts local customs as well as shows that capitalize on its snow and ice. Central Street is your best bet if you want to learn about traditional Chinese culture, while Harbin Ice and Snow World and the Ice Lantern Garden Party offer a more modern look at the city’s ice culture. You can even spice things up by getting close to the Siberian tigers at the Siberian Tiger Park.
During the festival, the old town of Pingyao is completely decorated with red lanterns. If you’re looking for a famous local activity, keep an eye out for Shehuo fairs (serious folk performances), as they are the essence of Chinese traditional culture during the Lunar New Year celebration. Most visitors to Pingyao choose to stay in smalls inns and spend the holiday with locals.
Also called the Flower City, Guangzhou is known for its Chinese New Year Flower Fair. On the eve of the festival, nearly all of the city’s streets and lanes are filled with flowers and bonsais. Locals buy and sell flowers along the streets until midnight or early morning on the first day of the Lunar New Year. The Cantonese also place a lot of significance on the red envelopes during the celebration.
The Chinese New Year Flower Fair in Victoria Park, Hong Kong, is a great place to find all kinds of flowers while enjoying the cultural festivities. There’s also a famous parade on New Year’s Day featuring colorful floats, marching bands, troupes of acrobats, traditional Chinese dancers, drummers, Chinese lions, and, of course, firecrackers.
If you’re visiting China during the new year celebrations, remember that the spring movement causes increased crowds on public transportation and affects the opening hours of shops for the span of two whole weeks. That said, this time of year also showcases some of the greatest magic of China, and allows visitors to learn about traditional Chinese culture and celebrate this special holiday with locals.
If you know that you’re going to be in China during the Lunar New Year, avoid traveling by rail, arrange as much of your itinerary as possible beforehand, and make the most of the cultural experience.