The Chinese New Year is China’s most important holiday. It is also known as the Spring Festival. Traditionally, the New Year period lasts for 15 days, starting from the middle of the last month and ends sometime in the middle of the first month. The holiday not only welcomes in the New Year, but is also a time to honor deities and ancestors, as well as spend time with the family.
In 2014, the Chinese New Year will fall on Friday, January 31.
Lunar Calendar and the Zodiac
The Chinese Lunar calendar determines when the dates of holidays and other events take place. It is an ancient guide for the Chinese in almost all aspects of their lives and is based on the moon’s phases as well as the solar solstices and equinoxes. It also takes note of the sun’s cycles, which is the basis for the twelve signs of the Chinese zodiac. Following this, 2014 is the year of the Horse, and people of this sign are idealistic, loyal and independent.
One of the most popular stories tells of the beast Nian who would attack villages at the start of the New Year, eating their crops and people. To appease Nian, the villagers would prepare food and place it at the doors of their homes. It is also believed that Nian feared the color red and loud noises, which are now prominent symbols of the Chinese New Year celebrations.
Red envelopes, known as hong bao in Mandarin, are small packets filled with money that are given to young children by their elders. These red envelopes represent good luck, happiness and abundance. In some cases, it is also given to unmarried and unemployed adults to give them hope and encouragement. In other countries, this is called ang pao (Philippines) or ang poh (Malaysia).
The Chinese consider themselves as descendants of this mythical and majestic creature who represents prosperity, good luck and good fortune. The dance itself, dating back to the Han Dynasty, was believed to be a harvest tradition and brings about good health, prosperity and good luck.
With its loud explosions and bright lights, fireworks are believed to scare away evil and negative spirits. Fireworks have been an integral part of the Chinese New Year celebrations for many years, but because of the rising occurrence of accidents, many countries have banned the public use of fireworks. Instead, big displays are organized for the public to view.
Homes are thoroughly cleaned before the New Year in order to remove any traces of negativity and start over with a clean slate. The New Year is also a time for family to come together. Food is an integral part of the Chinese New Year celebrations, particularly during the Chinese New Year’s Eve. It is one of the most important family gatherings, and is often hosted by the most senior member of the family.
Food for Good Fortune
The foods that are prepared and served are often chosen because of how similar their names sound to things that are auspicious and good. For example, mandarin oranges are a popular fruit not only because it is in season but also because its name sounds close to the word that means “luck” or “fortune”. Chicken based dishes are also served in the belief that all families, no matter their social or economic standing, should be able to afford this meat.
Fish dishes are also served, but usually left for last and often not eaten in its entirety. This is because the word “fish” sounds like “abundance”, and leaving some of it for the next day means that the family will receive abundant blessings in the coming year.
Niangao or New Year cake is a glutinous rice delicacy that is traditionally most popular during this season because its consumption is considered to be good luck. Its name sounds like a phrase that implies one being prosperous year after year. In the Philippines, this is called tikoy.
Modern Chinese New Year
While modern day China celebrates January 1 as the first day of the Gregorian calendar year, the traditional Lunar New Year is still very much observed.
The Chinese New Year is a public holiday in People’s Republic of China, its territories of Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau and countries around the world like Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore where there are sizeable population and communities of Chinese. The rest of the world also considers this a major holiday, but is not necessarily a public or official one.
Celebrations of the Chinese New Year all over the world take its cue from the traditional Chinese customs and practices.
Chinese New Year in Singapore
Celebrations in Singapore is quite grand in scale because of the strong Chinese-Singaporean population. Several events are predominantly featured during the days of New Year, including the Chingay Parade, River Hongbao and in the recent years, the Festive Street Bazaar which featured nightly shows and competitions.
Chinese New Year in Malaysia
For the Malaysians, preparations for the New Year start almost as soon as the Christmas season ends. New Year themed decorations replace the Christmas ones. In Malaysia, most states declare the first two days of the New Year as a holiday. Penang and Klang are said to be the locations of the biggest Chinese New Year celebrations in Malaysia, but everyone celebrates it in their own way. Families gather on New Year’s Eve for a reunion dinner. The first dish served is the yee sang, a raw fish salad that the family tosses with their chopsticks. This activity is known as the prosperity toss and is expected to bring good fortune as the year rolls in. Gift giving is also a big tradition, and in Malaysia everyone receives a red envelope with a small sum of money. On chap goh mei, the fifteenth and last day of the New Year, families again come together for a feast similar to the reunion dinner at the start of the year.
Chinese New Year in the Philippines
The Chinese New Year is not usually considered a public holiday in the Philippines, but in 2012 it was declared to be a national holiday. It is celebrated not just by the sizeable Chinese-Filipino community but by the entire nation. Establishments go all out with decorations and many participate in traditional Chinese New Year customs. Chinatown in Manila, considered to be the world’s oldest Chinatowns outside China attracts thousands of visitors every Chinese New Year. Niangao are popular gifts and can be purchased almost everywhere. Red envelopes are also given out with a person’s fortune.
Chinese New Year in Vietnam
The Vietnamese celebrate the coming of the new year as based on the lunisolar calendar much like the Chinese do, but it is known as Tet Ngyuen Dan, or simply Tet. It coincides with the Chinese New Year, but with the one-hour time difference between Vietnam and China, the calculations are a little different. To the Vietnamese, this holiday is the Feast of the First Morning.
With a civilization that is one of the oldest in the world, it is no surprise that the celebration of the Chinese New Year is observed internationally. It is a festival that allows people to touch base with their families and remember that the important things in life are not material things.