Lunar New Year & Spring Festival
The Lunar New Year and accompanying Spring Festival is the most important holiday of many people globally. It is celebrated with fireworks and Dragon dancing by two billion people all over the world, with the biggest festivities take place in China, Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia. The festivities start one day prior to New Year and continues until the Lantern Festival, on the 15th day of the new year, which is celebrated with songs, dances and a show of multicolored lanterns. To celebrate the Spring Festival, over 800 million of Chinese return home, being involved in the phenomenon known as the Largest Migration of the modern world.
Popular New Year Traditions
The Monster (Dragon and Lion Dances)
The dragon and lion have become symbols of Chinese culture, as they are believed to bring good luck. In ancient times, there was a monster named Nián (年). It usually lives at the bottom of the sea and comes up once a year to feast on animals and humans. On this day, the villagers would all escape into the mountains. Nian is a horned beast, a mix between a dragon and a kirin. One year, a beggar came to seek shelter, but everyone was hurrying away. Only an old woman took him in and he promised to chase Nian away. He busied himself with decorating the homes. At midnight, Nian lumbered in but stopped short when it saw the red paper on the doors. As it roared in anger, firecrackers suddenly sounded and it trembled in fear. When it saw the beggar, dressed in red, laughing at it, it could only run away. The villagers came back the next day and were pleasantly surprised that the homes were all still standing. They realized that loud noises and the color red were Nian’s kryptonite. 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. This is why, on New Year’s Eve, families eat dinner in their homes fortified by red decorations. At midnight, firecrackers are sounded. In addition, people will wear new and festive red clothing to celebrate.
Evil Spirits and Couplets
One of the red decorations that Chinese people love is Spring Festival couplet poems (春联—chūn lián). They are pasted on both sides of the doorframe. And Nian isn’t the only monster that these poems protect you against! More specifically, they guard against demons who wander around the human world at night looking for trouble. They must return to the underworld at dawn. Two gods guard the entrance, which is under a giant peach tree. Any demons that harmed humans during the night would be seized and fed to the tigers. To safeguard their homes, people began to carve the gods’ names into peach wood tablets. By placing them outside their doors, they were able to scare the demons away.Through time couplets became much longer and more complex poems.
Fortune has Arrived!
Another decoration is calligraphy. The most common word is fú (福), meaning happiness or fortune. But you’ll rarely see it upright. It is said that in the Ming dynasty, the Emperor ordered every household to decorate by pasting fu onto their doors. On New Year’s Day, he sent soldiers to check. They found that one illiterate family pasted the word upside down. The Emperor ordered the family to be punished by death. Thankfully, the Empress was there and came up with an explanation: “Upside down” (倒—dào) is a homophone of “here” (到—dào). When it’s upside down, it means that fu is here. The explanation made sense to the Emperor and he set the family free. From then on, people would hang the word upside down, both for fortune and in remembrance of the kind Empress. Fu is usually written on red paper in the style of traditional calligraphy.
Dumplings & Ears & Gold
Some people say that dumplings are shaped like gold and silver ingots. Others say they look like ears. That may be due to a myth about the goddess Nǚ wā (女娲). Nǚ wā has the body of a snake and is known as the mother of all life. She created humans out of yellow clay. But she realized that the ears would freeze and crack off in the winter. To solve this problem, she sewed the ears in place and put the end of the thread in the humans’ mouths. Later, to thank Nǚ wā, people molded dough into the shape of ears. They then stuffed it with meat and vegetables rather than thread. Others say the shape of a Chinese-style dumpling resembles the pieces of gold that were used as money in ancient times. A plate full of dumplings looks like a big pile of gold, symbolizing wealth in the coming year. So eat some dumplings!
During the New Year, there is another custom, called HongBao, meaning the Red Envelope. Married people gift money in red envelopes to children and unmarried adults. Next, the family leaves to greet relatives and neighbors. During New Year, old quarrels are forgotten and everyone enjoys the coming of a new year. According to legends, there used to be an evil spirit named Sui (祟). It would appear on New Year’s Eve and pat the heads of sleeping children three times. The children would end up with a fever. Even if they recovered from the fever, they’d never be the same again. During Chinese New Year, children receive red envelopes filled with money. One couple entertained their child with some coins at night. When he fell asleep, they placed the coins on red paper and left it by the pillow. When Sui came, the coins flashed and frightened it away. From then on, parents would give children money wrapped in red paper every New Year’s Eve.
Your zodiac animal year is called your benming year (本命年—běn mìng nián). During that entire year, you’re prone to catching the attention of demons. The way to protect yourself is to wear red underwear. It’s believed that before turning 100 days old, infants’ souls can be taken back at any time. So parents would give their babies a lock pendant. During the Liao Dynasty, the benming year was also known as rebirth. People would celebrate their rebirth with a ceremony conducted by a priestess (or witch). It’s equally dangerous during your rebirth year. To lock in your luck and soul, make sure you wear red underwear! (And have many pairs, since you must wear them every day.)
During the holiday, over 12 billion large and small fireworks are detonated, this being one of the greatest pyrotechnic holidays of the year. Firecrackers were thrown in the air in order to ward off evil spirits. Unfortunately, since 2017, over 400 cities have banned firecrackers and fireworks, because of high levels of pollution and fire hazards, although they can be used within smaller towns and villages over the year.
Traditional New Year Gifts
The gifts that are given with the occasion of Spring Festival to the loved ones, in order to have prosperity and luck, include:
- Red envelopes filled with money are gifted to young adults and children during the Chinese New Year; giving each other gifts is also an ancient tradition specific to the New Year.
- Spring letters, usually written with black ink on red paper, expressing in rhymes greetings and wishes of happiness, luck, wealth and longevity; they are exposed on windows and doors for 2 months, to be fulfilled.
- The prosperity tray displayed in the house – full of sweets, candy and, dry fruits – with which the guests are treated; called “the tray of togetherness”, it usually has 8 sections, each of them for a special type of food, signifying the importance of the New Year.
- Oranges (signifying riches or wealth) and tangerines (established symbols of luck) should not be missing from the Chinese New Year’s table.
- Plum blossoms (symbolizing hope and courage) or narcissus flowers (symbolizing the New Year) represent great gifts; paintings, stamps or sketches and amulets illustrating these flowers are as powerful and can be offered or present in the house.
Do not say negative words
All words with negative connotations are forbidden! These include: death, sick, empty, pain, ghost, poor, break, kill and more. The reason behind this should be obvious. You wouldn’t want to jinx yourself or bring those misfortunes onto you and your loved ones.
Do not break ceramics or glass
Breaking things will break your connection to prosperity and fortune. If a plate or bowl is dropped, immediately wrap it with red paper while murmuring auspicious phrases. Some would say 岁岁平安 (suì suì píng ān). This asks for peace and security every year. 岁 (suì) is also a homophone of 碎, which means “broken” or “shattered.” After the New Year, throw the wrapped up shards into a lake or river.
Do not clean or sweep
Before the Spring Festival, there is a day of cleaning. That is to sweep away the bad luck. But during the actual celebration, it becomes a taboo. Cleaning or throwing out garbage may sweep away good luck instead. If you must, make sure to start at the outer edge of a room and sweep inwards. Bag up any garbage and throw it away after the 5th day. Similarly, you shouldn’t take a shower on Chinese New Year’s Day.
Do not use scissors, knives or sharp objects
There are 2 reasons behind this rule. Scissors and needles shouldn’t be used. In olden times, this was to give women a well-deserved break. Sharp objects in general will cut your stream of wealth and success.
Do not shower, wash or cut your hair
Leave your hair as it is on the first day of the New Year. The Chinese character for hair is the same first character in the word for prosper. This means washing or cutting it off is seen as washing your fortune away and dramatically reduces chances of prosperity in the year ahead. This is why 99% of hair salons are closed during the holidays. Hair cutting is taboo and forbidden until Lantern Festival, when all festivities are over. Actually, fundamentalists will tell you taking a shower is also off-limits on the first day for the same reason.
Do not buy books
Avid readers will want to stock up on their books and magazines before the Lunar New Year, because it’s bad luck to buy them during the 15-day Spring Festival. The Chinese word for “book” (shū) sounds exactly the same as the word for “lose” — so buying a book right after ringing in the New Year is considered an invitation for bad luck. Also, avoid giving books as gifts to anyone, because it’d be like wishing bad luck upon them.
Do not demand debt repayment
This custom is a show of understanding. It allows everyone a chance to celebrate without worry. If you knock on someone’s door, demanding repayment, you’ll bring bad luck to both parties. However, it’s fair game after the 5th day. Borrowing money is also taboo. You could end up having to borrow the entire year.
Avoid fighting and crying
Unless there is a special circumstance, try not to cry. But if a child cries, do not reprimand them. All issues should be solved peacefully. In the past, neighbors would come over to play peacemaker for any arguments that occurred. This is all to ensure a smooth path in the new year.
Avoid taking medicine
Try not to take medicine during the Spring Festival to avoid being sick the entire year. Of course, if you are chronically ill or contract a sudden serious disease, immediate health should still come first. Further, don’t visit the doctor, don’t perform/undergo surgery, don’t get shots.
Do not give blessings to someone still in bed
You are supposed to give New Year blessings (拜年—bài nián). But let the recipient get up from bed first. Otherwise, they’ll be bed-ridden for the entire year. You also shouldn’t tell someone to wake up. You don’t want them to be rushed around and bossed around for the year. Take advantage of this and sleep in!