What Is Chinese New Year?

A Guide to the Lunar New Year

So what is Chinese New Year really all about?

More properly known as the Lunar New Year because of its widespread observance, the celebration marks the start of spring on the Chinese calendar each January or February.

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

Chinese New Year 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 literally opened to welcome in a fresh batch of luck and good fortune for the year.

The Lunar New Year runs for 15 consecutive days and is celebrated not just in Asia but throughout the world!

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    Dancers perform a dragon dance during the Chinese New Year
    ••• Dragon dances are one of many Chinese New Year traditions. Kevin Frayer / Stringer / Getty Images

    The dates for Chinese New Year change each year because the festival is based upon the lunisolar calendar. Regardless, you can expect the celebration to begin around late January or early February.

    Each new year coincides with one of 12 animal signs on the Chinese zodiac. The year of your animal sign is considered a time to be cautious for fear of upsetting the god of age from Chinese mythology. One year of every 12 you should tread lightly — and wear red or jade!

    Chinese New Year goes 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:

    • 2016: February 8 (Year of the Monkey)
    • 2017: January 28 (Year of the Rooster)
    • 2018: February 16 (Year of the Dog)
    • 2019: February 5 (Year of the Pig)
    • 2020: January 25 (year of the Rat)
    • 2021: February 12 (Year of the Ox)
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    Chinese New Year Decorations
    ••• Paper Chinese New Year decorations are an easy option. ViewStock / Getty Images

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

    Preparations begin at home with a thorough house cleaning, the removal of broken or "unlucky" items, and even new decorations — particularly fresh flowers and calligraphy. Plants are pruned or replaced. Room is made in drawers 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.

    New outfits — typically an auspicious color such as red — are purchased for the occasion. Snacks, traditional foods, and sweets are purchased for the many loved ones who will be visiting.

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    Chinese New Year dancers
    ••• Chinese New Year traditions include dancing and performances. Greg Rodgers

    Although tourists typically only see the first day or two of Chinese New Year, the festival is observed for 15 days with a list of traditions to perform 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 the famous lion dance. 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 and numerous businesses run sales and specials before they close for the public holiday.

    Small gifts and tokens of love are exchanged between friends.

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    Chinese New Year Hong Bao envelope
    ••• Money in red envelopes known as hong bao is a popular Chinese New Year gift. XiXinXing / Getty Images

    Chinese New Year is filled with traditions that have survived for centuries.

    The holiday begins with a traditional meal of fish and dumplings with family and friends on the eve before the big day. Fireworks — and sometimes chaotic noise — follow. The first two days of the festival are celebrated with the most gusto.

    Fireworks are thrown to frighten away evil spirits and keep Nian, a dangerous beast who doesn't like noises or the color red, at bay.

    Windows are opened to let in good luck, and small gifts inside of red envelopes known as hong bao are exchanged. Children are given money.

    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, and time is spent with family.

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    What to Wear on Chinese New Year
    ••• You should wear something red on Chinese New Year!. Lane Oatey / Blue Jean Images / Getty Images

    Lunar New Year (including Chinese New Year) is celebrated around the globe, making it arguably one of the most widely observed holidays in the world!

    Knowing how to say "happy new year" in Chinese will be very useful. Fortunately, learning how is easy! Despite Mandarin being a tonal language, your Chinese friends will understand through context.

    You can get a few smiles and wish Chinese speakers in your community a happy Lunar New Year just by saying: xin nian kuai le (sounds like "zeen neean kwai luh").

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

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    Chinese Lion Dance
    ••• Pascal Deloche/Getty Images

    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. Each animal has certain traits and compatibilities with other animals. The signs are further broken down into elements (wood, fire, earth, metal, and water) and is either yin or yang.

    When 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 a little more lightly. Wearing a red bracelet or ribbon, something jade, or even red underwear are thought to counter the risk of bad fortune for the year.