Feasting, Fanfare and Fireworks: Chinese New Year

Feasting, Fanfare and Fireworks: Chinese New Year

For thousands of years, Chinese people have celebrated the Lunar New Year as a way to pay respect to their ancestors, honor deities and welcome the arrival of a new year. With festivities stretching out over 15 days, it’s the longest and most important holiday in China, and millions of Chinese from all over the world make the journey home each year to reconnect with their families.

In fact, the travel period before, during and after Chinese New Year has often been called the world’s largest annual migration, with over 2 billion passenger journeys made every year.

In 2019, mark your calendars for February 5th, when China will usher in the Year of the Pig.

Spending time with family is one of the most important parts of the Chinese New Year celebrations<br>Photo: Peter Guttman

Spending time with family is one of the most important parts of the Chinese New Year celebrations
Photo: Peter Guttman

Mythic OriginsHow did this celebration of the new year begin? No one knows exactly, but many stories center around an ancient myth of a monster known as the Nian, which would attack villagers and devour crops on the first day of every new year. According to the myth, an old man was able to scare it away each year by hanging red banners and paper, banging drums and setting off firecrackers. This became part of the tradition of Guo Nian, which literally means “to pass or overcome the Nian.” In turn, the word nian in Chinese came to mean “year” in reference to the mythological tale.

A Lunar BeginningA more practical reason for the origins of Chinese New Year is rooted in the fact that ancient China was a deeply agrarian society. Beginning as early as the 21st-16th centuries BCE, lunar cycles were recorded and predicted so farmers could recognize the changing of the seasons and determine when to start planting, till the soil or begin the harvest. This was the origin of the lunar calendar system, which was used in China until the early 20th century.

Historically, the Lunar New Year marked a rare period of rest for farmers. During this time, work would not be done in the fields until the first rains of the new year, which according to ancient lunar calendar systems typically started about 15 days after New Year’s Day. This seasonal break became the ideal time to visit loved ones, congratulate each other for surviving the harsh winter and ring in the new year with plenty of feasts and festivities. Records indicate that New Year’s celebrations like this may have occurred in China at least as early as the 14th century BCE.

Out With the Old…In the days leading up to New Year’s Eve, Chinese families give their homes a thorough cleaning to wash away any bad luck from the past year. Many will also give their homes a fresh coat of paint and toss out old furniture or personal items. Brooms, mops, dustpans and other cleaning supplies will then be locked up for the remainder of the New Year’s festivities, so that good luck can’t beswept away.” New clothes and shoes will be purchased, outstanding financial and personal debts paid off and haircuts done before the celebration begins so one can enter the New Year with a clean slate.

Raise the Red LanternsRed has been an emblematic color in Chinese celebrations for generations. It symbolizes joy, virtue and good fortune, since in Mandarin Chinese, the word for “red” is homophonous with the word for “prosperity.”

During Chinese New Year, households, businesses and city streets are fully decked out in vibrant crimson colors, from red lanterns to Chinese knots and calligraphy with traditional idioms for good fortune. One particularly common decoration is a diamond-shaped sign of the word fu, which in Chinese means “blessings” or “happiness.”

New Year’s FoodsOf course, no celebration would be complete without good food, and New Year’s Eve marks the biggest event in the holiday period, when the family Nian Ye Fan, or “Reunion Dinner,” is held. This is the night when loved ones can reconnect and welcome the new year together.

Communal hot pot dishes are typically featured to symbolize coming together as a family, along with dumplings made into round shapes resembling money. A whole fish is often served for the main course, since the Chinese word for “fish” sounds like the word for “surplus.”

Some will eat the fish, leaving a little left over to “ensure there will be enough money in the coming year,” while others only cook it for display to eat the following day. Regardless, it’s important that the fish be cooked and served whole, since cutting through the bones is thought to bring bad luck. The bounteous feast is rounded off with fresh and dried fruits, sweet dumplings and sticky rice cakes to symbolize sweetness in the coming year.

Delicious dumplings decorate many plates during the New Year celebrations<br>Photo: Emily Kelso

Delicious dumplings decorate many plates during the New Year celebrations
Photo: Emily Kelso

Celebrating, Chinese-styleGift-giving is customary in Chinese celebrations, and red envelopes known as hongbao are the most popular gift handed out during Chinese New Year. Traditionally, these envelopes were known as yasuiqian, which could be translated as “money used to suppress evil spirits,” and were meant to bring good luck and quell any misfortunes for the recipient.

Today, these envelopes are passed from older generations to young folk, from bosses to employees, and from married couples to singles. The money inside may vary, but any amount with an odd number or the number four in it is considered taboo – odd numbers are often associated with cash given during funerals, and the Chinese word for “four” sounds similar to the word for “death.”

Once the clock strikes midnight, families will rush out into the streets to set off scores of firecrackers. The celebration continues into New Year’s Day, when large-scale parades and fireworks shows are held, often featuring traditional Chinese Lion Dance performances to chase away any evil spirits lurking about.

As much as the holiday is about looking forward, it’s equally important for the Chinese to remind themselves of where they’ve been and pay their respects to those who helped them achieve success. Family altars and religious icons will be thoroughly cleaned before New Year’s Eve, and bowls of sweets, incense and paper money laid out as offerings to ancestors and deities on New Year’s Day in gratitude for the good fortune of the past year.

As they say in China, Xinnian Kuaile – Happy New Year!

Travel to China with MIR

MIR has more than two decades of experience planning personalized tours to China. Our knowledgeable Private Journeys Specialists are at the ready to handcraft a custom private journey centered around the Chinese New Year, catering to your preferred dates of travel and interests.

Or you can discover more of China’s fascinating traditions, culture and history on some of MIR’s tours that include travel to China:

Small Group Tours

Rail Journeys by Private Train

Chat with a MIR destination specialist about travel to China by phone (1-800-424-7289) or email today. 


Top photo: Dragon statues (symbolizing boldness, heroism and perseverance) stand out against the Shanghai skyline. Photo credit: Peter Guttman

PUBLISHED: January 4, 2019

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