Chinese New Year (農曆新年), also known as the Spring Festival (春節), is the most important Chinese traditional festival. Chinese New Year (CNY) celebrations run from Chinese New Year’s Eve (除夕), the last day of the last month of the lunar calendar, to the Lantern Festival (元宵節) on the 15th day of the first lunar month, making the festival the longest in the Chinese calendar.
In 2021, Chinese New Year falls on 12 February (Friday).
Legend says that there was a man-eating beast, “nian (年獸)”, in ancient China. “Nian” would come from the mountain once a year on the New Year Eve and infiltrate houses silently to prey on humans and animals. People later learned that “nian” was afraid of loud noises and the colour red, so people use explosives, fireworks and colour red to scare “nian” away.
CNY is centuries old and gains significance because of several myths and traditions. Traditionally, the festival was a time to honour deities (神靈) as well as ancestors (祖先). It is a time for family reunion and celebration. It is as important as the Thanksgiving Day and Christmas combined in the Western culture.
In China, regional custom and traditions concerning the celebration of the CNY vary widely. Often, New Year’s Eve is an occasion for Chinese families to gather for the annual reunion dinner (團年飯, 年夜飯). It is also a tradition for every family to thoroughly cleanse the house, in order to sweep away any ill-fortune and to make way for good incoming luck. Windows and doors are decorated with red colour paper-cuts (剪紙) and couplets (春聯) with popular themes of good fortune (福), happiness, wealth and longevity. Other activities include lighting firecrackers and giving money in red packers (紅封包, 利是).
In the past, around 3.5 billion trips were made in China each year to get to their hometowns for family reunions during the holiday. China’s trains carried more than 350 million passenger trips across a two-week span during the chunyun (春運) ‘spring movement’, an enormous task for the network. But in 2021 because of COVID-19 pandemic, the Chinese Government tries to halt this gigantic human migration. Public celebrations have to be greatly reduced or even cancelled.
Activities during the Chinese New Year
Annual reunion dinner (團年飯，年夜飯) on New Year Eve
Usually three days before the New Year, families clean up their home and put beautiful decorations usually in red colour on the wall. Housewives prepare good food for the New Year Eve. Members of the family sit around the table. The food usually includes chicken, barbeque pork, a whole steamed fish, prawns, vegetables, etc. In the northern part of China, jiaozi (餃子, dumplings) are the most essential food for the occasion.
Going to the flower markets
Plants like peach blossoms(桃花), narcissus (水仙花), gladiolus (劍蘭花), orchid (蘭花), chrysanthemums (菊花), peonies (牡丹花), mandarin (柑) and kumguat (金桔), lucky bamboo (富貴竹) are sold as cut flowers or pot plants in the markets. Toys and small decorations are also available there. Shopping around the stalls can bring good luck throughout the year.
People dressed smartly visit the homes of one another. They bring along gifts like fruits, chocolate and biscuits. Traditionally married couples give red packets (紅封包, 利是) with some cash inside to younger people or their staff. Most areas in mainland China permit firecrackers. In the first three days of the CNY, it is a tradition that people compete with each other by playing with firecrackers. However, firecrackers are banned in many urban areas for safety reasons.
Going to temples to burn joss sticks and incenses
Some people go to temples to burn joss sticks to worship the deities. They ask for favours and blessings for the families.
Watching performance and fireworks
Dragon dance (舞龍) and lion dance (舞獅) are believed to be able to cast away the evil spirit and bring good luck. Cultural performance such as Chinese operas, concerts and variety shows are popular entertainment in all parts of China. The CCTV Spring Festival Gala (Chunwan, 春晚 ) is a big variety show featuring musical, dance, comedy and drama performances and has become a ritual for New Year’s Eve for many years. It is the most premiere television event of China which draws 700 million viewers all over the world. In some big cities like Hong Kong, spectacular and colourful fireworks are displayed in the evening.
Special food for the Chinese New Year
In North China, everyone eats the jiaozi (餃子, dumplings). Jiaozi can be wrapped in the shape of an old silver ingot, yuanbao (元寶).
Nian gao (年糕, year cake), gao is the homophonic symbol for 高, tall or high. Hence the cake symbolizes achieving new heights in the coming year. Dates are said to bring “early prosperity”.
Jin deui / zhi-ma-qiu (煎堆, 芝麻球, deep fried glutinous rice balls) and jau gok (油角, deep fried glutinous rice dumplings). The pastry is coated with sesame seeds on the outside and is crisp and chewy. Inside the pastry is a large hollow, caused by the expansion of the dough. The hollow of the pastry is filled with sweet lotus paste (蓮蓉) or sweet red bean paste (紅豆沙). As the rice balls or the rice dumplings inflate, your wallets also expand.
Black sesame filled glutinous rice balls (黑芝麻湯圓) These sticky sweet snacks symbolise the family sticking together. Support and collaboration will lead to success and prosperity.
Chinese candy box (全盒) / The Tray of Togetherness is a traditional box used during CNY to present candies and other snacks to guests. Usually it consists of 6 or 8 (Chinese auspicious lucky numbers) kinds of red sunflower seeds (瓜子) and sugar preserved dried fruits and vegetables like the dried candied lotus seed (糖蓮子), lotus stem (糖蓮藕), ginger (糖薑), water chestnut (糖馬蹄) as well as peanuts (花生), candies and chocolates. The sweet snacks give sweetness and bring happiness and good fortune.
Jai ( 齋, Vegetable combinations) This vegetarian dish is eaten because it is part of the Buddhist culture to cleanse oneself with vegetables. It is also packed with good-luck food like fa cai (髮菜, black sea moss Nostac, homophonic with 發財 for prosperity); lotus seeds (蓮子, brings children), Chinese black mushrooms (冬菇 for “東成西就”, success spaning from east to west), peanuts (花生, 長生果 brings long life).
Whole Fish The Chinese word for fish is homophonic with 餘 meaning abundance. It is important that the fish is served with the head and tail intact to ensure a good start and finish.
Other dishes like steamed chicken (雞), barbeque pork (燒肉) are also popular.
Popular flowers for the Chinese New Year Decorations
Other popular symbols for Good Fortune
Lastly I would like to mention a Deity called Zao-jun (灶君, The Kitchen God / The Stove Deity). It is believed that on the 23rd day of the twelfth lunar month, just before CNY, the deity returns to Heaven to report the activities of every household over the past year to the Jade Emperor (玉皇大帝, Yu Huang). The Jade Emperor, emperor of the heavens, either rewards or punishes a family based on Zao-jun’s yearly report. Traditionally, every Chinese household would have a paper effigy or a plaque of Zao-jun. Offerings of food and incense are made to Zao-jun. Preparations for CNY begin on the 23rd day of the twelfth lunar month.
I talked about CNY folklore and the symbols for good luck. I do not have any intention to encourage people to be superstitious. In my opinion, being generous to others, we can let go of our own unhappiness. Then we will enjoy the peace of mind and bring good health and happiness to our loved ones.
May Our Lord bless you and keep you always.
願神賜福您和您的家人, 新年長樂, 福壽咸增。