What Is Chinese New Year?

A dragon dance during Chinese New Year

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What is Chinese New Year really all about?

Chinese New Year can be more properly referred to as Lunar New Year because of the event's widespread observance beyond only Chinese culture. Lunar New Year celebrations mark the start of spring on the lunisolar calendar each January or February.

Chinese New Year is about symbolically doing away with the old of the previous year and beginning anew to usher in health, prosperity, and good fortune in the new lunar year.

The Lunar New Year runs for 15 consecutive days and is celebrated not just in Asia but throughout the world! The holiday actually creates the largest human migration on the planet each year.

01 of 06

When Is Chinese New Year?

Dancers perform a dragon dance during the Chinese New Year
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The dates for Chinese New Year change each year because start dates are based on lunar and solar events (the second new moon after the December solstice). Regardless, you can expect the celebration to usually begin around late January or early February.

Each lunar new year coincides with one of 12 animal signs on the Chinese zodiac. Contrary to Western rumor, the year of your animal sign is not your lucky year. Instead, the year is considered a time to be cautious for fear of upsetting the god of age from Chinese mythology. According to superstition, one year of every 12 you should tread lightly and wear red or jade!

Chinese New Year continues for 15 consecutive days and then finishes with the Lantern Festival. The first two or three days of the festival are typically observed as a public holiday; practices differ by country.

The start dates for Chinese New Year:

  • 2020: January 25 (year of the Rat)
  • 2021: February 12 (Year of the Ox)
02 of 06

Chinese New Year Preparations

Home decorations for Chinese New Year

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Unlike the Western New Year's Eve celebration on December 31, families who take Chinese New Year seriously begin preparations weeks in advance! After all, the prosperity of the upcoming year depends on preparing to receive good luck. The new lunar year needs to begin on a good note with a very clean slate.

Preparations for Chinese New Year begin at home with a thorough house cleaning that includes the removal of broken or "unlucky" items. New decorations are put in place, particularly fresh flowers and calligraphy. Bright red is the color of choice. Old plants are pruned or replaced. Space is made in drawers and closets for new things that are sure to come.

But the preparations don't just involve the house: Hair and fingernails are trimmed before the festival begins. Any cutting during Chinese New Year is seen as unlucky. Even noodles and food shouldn't be cut.

New outfits, often an auspicious color such as red or gold, are purchased for the occasion. Snacks, traditional foods, and sweets are purchased for the many loved ones who will be visiting. Many of the snacks and treats follow tradition or are symbolic in some way.

03 of 06

Celebrating Chinese New Year

Decorations are part of celebrating Chinese New Year

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Although travelers in Asia may typically only see the first day or two of Chinese New Year celebrated, the festival is observed in homes for 15 days with a list of traditions to follow on each day.

While a lot of the festival is celebrated with friends and family at home, tourists can enjoy parades with lots of firecrackers, fireworks displays, processions carrying lanterns in the streets, and performances such as lion dances and dragon dances—they're different! The cacophony of firecrackers and gongs is meant to frighten away mischievous spirits that could cause trouble in the new year.

During the buildup to Chinese New Year, special markets are set up. Numerous businesses launch sales and special initiatives before closing for the public holiday. Small gifts and tokens of love are exchanged between friends.

Hosting Lunar New Year parties is becoming more popular in the West. They're a great excuse to get friends together for a cultural occasion!

04 of 06

Chinese New Year Traditions

Chinese New Year Hong Bao envelope exchanging hands
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Chinese New Year is filled with traditions that have survived for centuries.

The auspicious holiday period is a time to catch up with family, enjoy fireworks, forget grudges, give gifts, visit temples, and enjoy good food. It's a purge of the old that was holding you back. Windows are opened (despite the January weather) to welcome in a fresh batch of luck and good fortune for the year.

Lunar New Year begins with a traditional meal of fish and dumplings shared among family and friends on the eve before the big day. Fireworks, and often noise and chaos, follow. The first two days of the festival are celebrated with the most enthusiasm.

Firecrackers are thrown in the streets to frighten away evil spirits and keep Nian, a dangerous beast who doesn't like noises or the color red, at bay. Cymbals and gongs are bashed to add to the noise.

Small gifts inside of red envelopes known as hong bao are exchanged. Children are often given money by their elders. The tradition has been modernized with the ability to send virtual hong bao using WeChat and other apps.

The next 15 days after the start of the holiday follow a loose set of traditions that are observed to honor ancestors and to receive the blessings from various deities. Homes and temples are visited on the auspicious days to do so, and time is spent with family.

Continue to 5 of 6 below.
05 of 06

Say "Happy New Year" in Mandarin Chinese

Lanterns hanging for Chinese New Year

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Lunar New Year is celebrated around the globe (Tet in Vietnam is just one example), making it arguably one of the most widely observed holidays in the world!

Knowing how to say "happy new year" in Mandarin Chinese will be very useful. Despite Mandarin Chinese being a tonal language, your Chinese friends will (hopefully) understand through context.

There are several ways to wish someone a happy Chinese New Year. You can get a few smiles in your community by saying: xin nian kuai le (sounds like "zeen neean kwai luh").

Another way to wish a happy Chinese New Year is with: gong xi fa cai (sounds like "gong zhee fah chai").

06 of 06

The Chinese Zodiac

Year of the Rat for Chinese New Year

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Whether you're superstitious or not, reading about the Chinese zodiac and your associated animal sign can be fun.

The Chinese zodiac follows a 12-year cycle with an animal representing each year. The year that you were born determines your animal sign, and purportedly your luck and success on certain dates. Each animal has specific traits and compatibility (or incompatibility) with other animals. The signs are further broken down into elements (wood, fire, earth, metal, and water) and are either yin or yang.

When the year of your animal sign comes back around, you are supposed to put off big life moves (e.g., getting married, starting a business, etc) if possible and tread more carefully until the next lunar year. Wearing a red bracelet or ribbon, something jade, or even red underwear are thought to counter the risk of bad fortune for the year.

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