The Chinese New Year is a celebration of the start of the new year on the traditional Chinese calendar.
Jump ahead to learn about:
- What is the Chinese New Year?
- When is the Chinese New Year?
- How Do You Celebrate the Chinese New Year?
The Chinese New Year is based on the lunar calendar rather than our well-known Gregorian calendar, so it is also known as the Lunar New Year. It is the most important and most celebrated holiday in Chinese communities around the world.
What is the Chinese New Year?
Although the Chinese New Year technically occurs in the winter, the celebration is most commonly referred to as the Spring Festival. It marks the end of the coldest part of winter and symbolizes looking forward to the start of the spring season.
The Spring Festival is a 15-day-long celebration that includes the Chinese New Year, parades, traditional food, family gatherings, and ends with the Lantern Festival.
The Spring Festival is the world’s largest annual migration. People travel to China from all over the globe to be with their families to celebrate the end of one year and the beginning of the next.
It is also the longest public holiday in China. People typically have two weeks off of work and students have a full month of winter vacation. This helps facilitate traveling to be with family for the festivities.
What are the origins of the Chinese New Year?
The Chinese New Year is believed to have originated sometime between 1600-1100 BC during the Shang Dynasty. It began as a time when people could rest from their work, celebrate with their families, and offer sacrifices to gods and ancestors to usher out the old and bring good fortune for the coming year.
To this day, the Spring Festival marks the time period when farmers can rest from their work in the fields and enjoy festivities with their families.
Where is it celebrated?
The Chinese New Year is one of the world’s most celebrated festivities. The largest celebration is in China, but it is celebrated all over the world. Other Asian countries, such as Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, Japan, Singapore, and Vietnam, also have massive celebrations.
The celebration is very popular in Chinatowns all over the US and around the world, and the city of San Francisco, California touts its Chinese New Year parade as the biggest celebration of its kind outside of Asia.
You can find Chinese New Year celebrations in most major metropolitan cities including world-famous parades in London, Sydney, Vancouver, and Paris
When is the Chinese New Year?
The Chinese New Year begins with the new moon that occurs between the end of January and the end of February. The Spring Festival lasts about 15 days, culminating with the full moon and a celebration called the Festival of Lanterns.
China traditionally followed the Lunar calendar, which is based on the cycles of the moon. In 1912, China switched to a Gregorian calendar based on the movement of the sun. The Chinese New Year, however, continues to follow the Lunar calendar. Because of this, Chinese New Year falls on a different date every year, typically between January 21st and February 20th.
Each year is also represented by an animal from the Chinese zodiac. Each animal has attributes that are then assigned to that year. The animals are rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig. 2020 is the year of the rat, so people born between January 25th, 2020 and February 12th, 2021 are said to possess the qualities of the rat — quick-witted, resourceful, and smart to name a few.
Here are the upcoming dates of the Chinese New Year and the zodiac for each year:
- 2020 (Rat): Saturday, January 25th
- 2021 (Ox): Friday, February 12th
- 2022 (Tiger): Tuesday, February 1st
- 2023 (Rabbit): Sunday, January 22nd
- 2024 (Dragon): Saturday, February 10th
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How Do You Celebrate the Chinese New Year?
"Xin Nian Hao" is the most common “Happy New Year” greeting among family and friends during Chinese New Year. It is such a joyous and festive occasion for people to be with their families and celebrate with food, entertainment, parades, decor, and gifts.
Food is arguably the most important part of any Chinese New Year celebration. There are dishes traditional to Chinese New Year and are even considered lucky.
Traditionally, dumplings (jiaozi) are served during all meals. For the first five days, many eat long noodles to symbolize a long life. On the 15th or last day of the festival, people eat round dumplings to symbolize the full moon. Round dumplings also symbolize the family unit and the ideal of perfection.
Other traditional foods include rice cakes (niangao), spring rolls, fish cakes, poultry, pork, and various fruits.
It is custom during Spring Festival to host and visit friends and family. During these gatherings, hosts serve lucky food such as nuts (huasheng), dates (zao), and lotus seeds (lianzi). These lucky foods are thought to bring on fertility, longevity, and upward mobility.
Along with visiting friends and relatives, there are many Chinese New Year activities to participate in. Parades, operas, street performances include acrobats and stilt walkers, drum and music performances, and dances. Traditional folk dance includes lion and dragon dances.
With almost a billion viewers worldwide, the televised Chinese New Year Gala is an entertainment staple during the Spring Festival. It is usually around five hours long and features theater, music, dance, and comedy. Kind of like the football game on Thanksgiving Day in the US, the gala is on in most Chinese households during their new year’s feasts.
Customs and decor
Cleaning your house, settling debts, and forgiving any grudges are an important part of the Chinese New Year. All cleaning is typically done by New Year's Eve before the big celebration and day of rest. Cleaning your house, settling debts, and forgiving grudges are thought to be “good riddance” of any bad fortune and prepare you for a bright future ahead.
Once the house is clean, families can start decorating. Homes are often decorated with banners, intricate cutouts, and festive lanterns. You will also see animal decor — dragons, lions, and the animal zodiac of the year.
Red is the traditional color of the Chinese New Year because red is considered the color of happiness and prosperity. It is also thought to ward off evil spirits and bad luck.
The traditional Chinese New Year gift is not a wrapped present. Instead, people exchange red envelopes or red pockets (hong bao) containing money.
These are traditionally gifted to children and elders. A middle-aged parent would gift a red envelope to their parents and also their children. However, the rules are much laxer now. Red envelopes are exchanged between coworkers, friends, and family members of all ages.
The money is considered lucky and everyone — even the kiddo — gets to spend their lucky money however they want!
The Spring Festival culminates on the 15th day with the Lantern Festival. It includes eating delicious foods, folk dancing, playing games, attending parades, and watching firework shows.
No Lantern Festival would be complete without lanterns, of course. It is said that lanterns were originally used to help light the way to the gods. Every family constructed their own paper lantern to help them see the gods and their ancestors. Now, creating exquisite and intricate lanterns is considered an art form in China. The most beautiful of these lanterns are displayed during the Lantern Festival.
On the traditional Chinese Lunar calendar, the 15th day is known as Yuanshao, a name meaning the round dumplings eaten to represent the full moon.
This 15th-day celebration signals the end of the festivities and a return to daily life. Businesses reopen, farmers head back to the fields, and the school semester begins.
What are Some Other Chinese Festivities?
There are so many different cultures all over the world with different holidays, funeral customs, and festivals.
If as you read through this post, you realized you want to learn more about the rich Chinese culture and traditions, check out the Qingming Festival and the Chinese Lantern Festival, a traditional Chinese celebration of the dead. Also, be sure to read up on the Hungry Ghost Festival.
- “The Lunar New Year.” Asia For Educators, afe.easia.columbia.edu/special/china_general_lunar.htm
- “Chinese New Year 2020.” History.com, 30 January 2010, updated 4 February 2020, www.history.com/topics/holidays/chinese-new-year