Most of the top traditions of Chinese New Year observed during the 15-day holiday serve one purpose: to usher in as much good fortune and prosperity as possible.
Dating back centuries, many traditions are deeply rooted in lore and superstition. Even folks who aren't ordinarily very "superstitious" often go along with practices at Chinese New Year celebrations meant to attract luck in the new year ahead. Plus, a lot of the traditions are fun!
The tonal language is responsible for many Chinese New Year traditions. Homophones, words that sound similar but have different meanings, determine much of what is considered lucky. For instance, pears are considered an unlucky fruit to give to friends just because the word sounds similar to the word for “separate.”
Yes, the two are different! The lion dance, performed by two acrobats inside a single costume, is the more common of the two dance traditions seen at celebrations. The ferocious, four-legged creature is widely—and incorrectly—referred to as a “dragon" by Westerners who aren't familiar.
Dragons look entirely different. Rather than two acrobats inside of a single costume, the dragons are long creatures lifted up on poles to be controlled by performers. The world record for the longest dragon in a dance is currently 18,390 feet!
Traditional dance troupes perform impressive, acrobatic feats with heavy props amid blaring noise. Drums, gongs, and firecrackers create chaos meant to discourage spirits with ill intent.
Lion and dragon dances are performed on other occasions as well, but they are definitely one of the top traditions of Chinese New Year most enjoyed by travelers.
From clothing and underwear to lanterns and calligraphy—bright, vivid red is the color of choice for Chinese New Year. It’s used in abundance everywhere feasibly possible during new year preparations.
Red is considered an auspicious, lucky color in Chinese culture no matter the occasion, but particularly so during Lunar New Year. Love of the color dates back to a centuries-old belief that evil spirits don’t like red. Nian, the mythological beast who comes out to wreck villages and feed—sometimes on children—hates noise and the color red.
White and black are funeral colors; avoid wearing them to Chinese New Year parties. Vivid red is the color of choice.
Fireworks and Firecrackers
Firecrackers add to the cacophony of chaos on the first day of Chinese New Year. Other than just fun, the noise was meant to scare away malicious spirits, particularly the Nian.
Because personal fireworks were banned for safety reasons in many places, local governments began organizing large fireworks shows to kick off the new year.
Firecrackers are thrown again on the fifth day of Chinese New Year to draw the attention—and favor—of Guan Yu, a famous Chinese general who is worshiped as a Taoist deity. The fiercely honorable general is depicted in temples and art throughout Asia holding his guan dao—a staff with a heavy blade on one end.
Forget greeting cards—give red envelopes instead! Known in Mandarin as hong bao, red envelopes containing money are often given from elders to children or unwed young adults.
People with more seniority also sometimes use red envelopes to give gifts and bonuses to staff. Ordinarily, giving gratuity or money outright can cause a loss of face; it’s even offensive in some Asian cultures. Hong bao are a discreet way to gift people who are important to you.
As with other traditions during Chinese New Year, symbolism is key. The amount of money given should be an auspicious number. Even numbers are preferable. The amount to give is a subject of much debate.
Because of similar-sounding words, six and eight are considered very lucky, while four is unlucky and should be avoided. Some lucky amounts are 88, 108, and 128. Banknotes should be as new and crisp as possible; never include coins!
Hong bao envelopes can also be “fed” to lions in appreciation for their effort during dance performances.
Geography is no longer a factor: WeChat, China’s primary social-media platform, allows people to send money electronically to friends as a digital form of hong bao!
What would a holiday season be without delicious dishes served for the occasion? Family members typically gather on New Year’s Eve for a traditional meal that encourages indulgence and symbolizes abundance. Foods are chosen for their lucky sounding names or auspicious shapes.
Meals differ from region to region, but most include eight (an auspicious number) courses of a meat-heavy lineup along with a whole fish of some sort. The fish is deliberately served late and not finished; the leftovers are saved. Not finishing the centerpiece of the meal symbolizes how the new year will be filled with surplus and abundance.
A communal hotpot is also prepared in some regions. The sharing and cooking of food fuels an atmosphere of togetherness.
Some other traditional dishes and lucky ingredients include:
- Jiaozi (dumplings): China’s ubiquitous dumplings are eaten at midnight because the shape roughly resembles ancient money. Spring rolls also represent wealth.
- Noodles: Of course, noodles are enjoyed throughout the year. But on Chinese New Year they aren’t cut. Leaving them long symbolizes longevity.
- Buddha’s Delight: Unlike many of the other dishes found on your neighborhood Chinese restaurant menu, this popular vegetarian dish actually comes from China. The vegetables are for good health, and the lack of meat gives living things a merciful break on New Year’s Day.
- Glutinous Rice Cakes: Nian gao, small cakes made of sticky rice, sugar, and other ingredients, are eaten for prosperity. The name is a homonym that sounds similar to “rising higher.”
- Mandarin Oranges: The sweet little oranges are a symbol of good luck. They are eaten, displayed, and gifted among friends and cohorts.
Although gift giving during the Lunar New Year doesn’t match the intensity of Christmas in the West, gifts and thoughtful tokens are exchanged between friends, relatives, and coworkers.
Visiting people on day three of Chinese New Year is considered bad luck, so many visits take place on day two. Gifts are usually brought along as people visit friends and family members in different households. Children get money and candies; adults often receive snack boxes with seeds, candy, and fruit.
With all the trouble to keep Chinese New Year conducive for good fortune, the choice of gift is very important. Gifts to avoid include watches, sandals, pears, umbrellas, mirrors, and items that are white or black. Items that total up to four should also be avoided.
If you receive a gift, put it aside to open later unless the giver requests otherwise.
In what is considered the largest human migration on earth, over 3 billion individual journeys are taken during Chinese New Year.
For around 40 days spanning both ends of the holiday, transportation in much of Asia gets stretched to capacity. The mass movement is known as chunyun, the Spring Festival travel season.
The most important Chinese New Year tradition of them all is to spend time with family and loved ones. As billions of people, especially migrant workers, return home over long distances to celebrate with the people they love, flights and rail service become booked up. Workers in China’s distant regions and islands such as Taiwan and Hong Kong fill flights to the mainland in January and February.
After the holiday, people who live in cool climates seize the time away from work to go on vacation somewhere warmer. Vietnam, Thailand, and other destinations in Southeast Asia become packed.
If you’ll be traveling anywhere in Asia during chunyun, make transportation reservations earlier than you normally would. Expect popular destinations to be busier than usual.