Chinese New Year or Spring Festival (Chūn Jié) is the start of the lunar calendar and the coming of spring. It is the largest Chinese celebration, celebrated at about the same time worldwide. New Year is celebrated around the same time by Chinese people all over the world – on the second new moon after the winter solstice. Chinese New year primarily involves family, friends and food. The celebration used to last 4 weeks but now it is 3 to 4 days. Many people in China get 5 days off to celebrate – although they may have to work the weekend before or afterward to make up for it. Xīn Nián Kuàilè! Gong xi Fa cai! Chūn Jié Kuài lè! Gung Hay Fat Choy! Every community has different ways of celebrating. In American many Chinese families celebrate on the nearest Saturday, being sure to clean the house, decorate with red, share a meal together, and perhaps wear traditional clothes.
The next Chinese New Years are: February 7, 2008; January 26, 2009; February 14, 2010; February 3, 2011; and January 23, 2012. If you want to do something at school, tell your child's teacher sooner rather than later - especially when it is so close to Valentine's Day they need to plan how to spend their time. Some parents are unable to go in when the teacher can support it and just send in (red) lai see or hóngbāo "goodie bags" as if it was a birthday. If you go in a lantern craft or parade, or a dragon to parade under is wonderful. Bring in some background music if you can.
How did Chinese New Year come to be celebrated? According to an ancient legend, once a year people were tormented by a beast called a Nian. Nian was a ferocious creature with a large mouth, capable of swallowing several people in a single bite. Relief from the Nian came only when an old man tricked the beast into disappearing. Or scared it away with loud noises and red. In reality, New Years festivities probably evolved from a desire to celebrate the end of winter and the fertility and rebirth that come with the spring, much like the ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia. Today, New Year is about family reunions and wishing everyone good fortune in the coming year. (Nián is Mandarin for year. Happy New Year! Xīn Nián Kuài Lè! 新年快樂! Xīn Nián Hǎo! 新年好!)
Some Chinese traditions for welcoming the New Year & creating good fortune in the year ahead:
- BEFORE New Year’s: Clean your home, sweep away the bad luck of the year that's ending, get new clothes, get your hair cut. Plan out the food! Round food (fruits like oranges which are also gold color) are good. Fish, long life noodles, … Pay off any debts so you can start the year, fresh. Decorate your home in red, the Chinese color for good luck.
- During the first days of New Year: DO NOT clean your home. You do not want to risk sweeping away the good luck of the New Year. Don’t wash your hair the first day, or get it cut in the first week or so.
- An important tradition on New Year's Eve is for families to gather together. In the north, many families will be spending the evening preparing jiaozi (dumplings). According to Chinese Culture Guide Jun Shan, it is common to hide a coin in one of the dumplings. Whoever gets the dumpling with the coin will supposedly have good luck in the coming year. (I wish I knew what part of China he was from!)
- Try to see as many of your family and friends as possible during the New Year celebration to spread good wishes for the coming year.
- Give out money packets - On New Years day, children receive “lai see” or “hong bao”- red packets decorated with gold symbols and filled with "lucky money”. See if you can get crisp new bills from your bank to use.
- Serve and eat as many lucky foods as possible on the New Year. Some of these foods are whole fish, noodles and mandarin oranges. If you're not ready to cook Chinese food, most Chinese restaurants offer special New Year menus.
- Don't cry on that day or raise your voice to your children or you'll be setting a tone of discord for the coming year.
- Some fruit or flowers or candy for your Chinese teacher would be appreciated.
- Lanterns and couplets written on red paper are common decorations. Fu means fortune, and it is shown here on a lantern and also in cursive.
Some Chinese believe the animal ruling the year in which a person is born has a profound influence on personality, saying: "This is the animal that hides in your heart." Others use the zodiac just for fun. According to one legend, Lord Buddha summoned all the animals to him before he left the earth. Only twelve responded and came to bid him farewell. For their reward, he named a year after each one of them in the order that they arrived. Another legend says that the years are named, in order, for the animals that raced for the Green Emperor.
There are a number of sites on the web with more information on the Chinese zodiac, Chinese New Year, and Chinese date converters. There are also solar to lunar date converters available for Palm Pilots.
For more on Chinese New Year, see Wikipedia's entry.
The Autumn Jade website has a short description of each animal of the zodiac.
In 2006, the Detroit Free Press did a nice overview titled FIVE THINGS: About the Chinese New Year.
Last updated: February 2007