Red envelopes, dancing dragons, and enchanting lanterns are all signs that the Chinese New Year has returned. This holiday and its traditions date back hundreds of years and it is one of the most widely celebrated holidays in the world after Christmas.
Sometimes called the Spring Festival, but more widely known as the Lunar New Year, Chinese New Year is a fantastic time to acquaint yourself with the cultures and traditions surrounding this auspicious annual event. Whether that means checking out the parade in Chinatown or even taking a trip to China during Chinese New Year, there's a lot you should know about this fortuitous festival and its many superstitions and motivations.
It's All About Luck
Nearly all of the traditions and superstitions observed during Chinese New Year serve a single purpose: to usher in as much good fortune and prosperity in the new year as possible. Clutter is removed, old debts are forgiven, and furniture is rearranged to make room for the good luck that will hopefully arrive in the new year.
Then once the festivities have begun, dedicated followers of a tradition won't even sweep the floors for fear that they will sweep away incoming luck. The same logic applies to getting a haircut, trimming houseplants, or even cutting noodles.
Every Year Celebrates a New Animal
The 12-year Chinese zodiac determines which dates and years are auspicious or unlucky. The system is based on the movement of the stars and each lunar cycle has 60 years divided into 12 smaller cycles, each of which is represented by one of the following animals: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig. According to legend, these animals were the first to arrive when the Jade Emperor ordered that animals would represent each zodiac cycle.
The Year of Your Animal Sign Is Not Your Lucky Year
Despite what many people think, the return of your birth year's animal is not necessarily a good thing. According to superstition, your zodiac year is a time to be careful to not upset Tai Sui, the Chinese God of Age. Traditionally, people in the year of their zodiac animal take extra precautions to adhere to the superstitions and attract good luck.
The Date Changes Every Year
The date for Chinese New Year varies from year to year because it is based on the Chinese lunisolar calendar, which is out of sync with the universally-used Gregorian calendar. This calendar is based on 12 moon cycles, which adds up to about 354 days, 11 short of the Gregorian calendar. Although the dates differ, the holiday always falls sometime in January or February.
The Lunar Calendar Is Way Ahead
Although lunar years have fewer days, the lunar calendar began counting way before the universal calendar. Per the lunar calendar, Chinese New Year in 2020 begins the year 4717. Year-numbering was once based on whims of emperors, who were the ones who decided when a new era of time would begin.
The Festival Lasts 15 Days
Instead of celebrating a singular moment at midnight as the world does on New Year's Eve, Lunar New Year in China brings with it 15 days of celebration. For a little over two weeks, parties, parades, and other traditions are non-stop during this new year period, which culminates on the last day with the Lantern Festival.
In China, most people are given seven days off work, but it varies by country to country. For example, in Singapore, the Lunar New Year is recognized with two official public holidays and in Japan, there is no official public holiday. The last day of the celebration is known as the Lantern Festival, which is typically celebrated as a night of revelry in the streets and also connecting with family.
The First Day Is the Most Important
Somewhat predictably, the most important days of Lunar New Year are the last day of the old year and the first day of the new year. The last day of the year is traditionally when the main parade takes place in cities across Asia. This is where you'll see some of the iconic symbols of Chinese New Year celebrations, like the dancing dragon puppets and lots of red costumes and outfits.
It's Celebrated Everywhere
The holiday is celebrated in Asia beyond China and each country incorporates its own cultural traditions. In most places, including China, the holiday is simply known as "Lunar New Year," however some places have different names for it. In Tibet, they celebrate it as the Losar Festival and in Vietnam, they celebrate Tết Nguyên Đán, also known as simply Tet. Traditions also vary by country, for example in South Korea there are only three days of celebration instead of 15. Estimates say that a sixth of the world's population celebrates Chinese New Year, including more than 1 billion Chinese citizens, plus Chinese communities around the world.
In recent years, celebrations in New York, London, and other global cities have spread from the local Chinatowns to become mainstream events hosted by the cities. Chinese New Year only rivals Christmas as the world's most celebrated event, but at the same time, Christmas is catching on more and more in Asia.
The Fireworks Have a Purpose
On eve of the first day of the Lunar New Year, fireworks are launched all over the country in every town and city center. In rural areas, locals may purchase their own fireworks to set them off at private parties and firecrackers can be frequently heard in the streets.
It may seem like a lot of ruckus, but there's a reason why everyone is making so much noise. The loud bangs and chaos are meant to frighten away the Nian, a lion-like mythological creature that was believed to stalk and eat villagers.
Updated by Greg Rodgers