Start a new tradition in your family by celebrating the Chinese New Year. In the Chinese culture, the celebration holds significance because it starts the new year off in a positive way, which is thought to bring luck, prosperity and good fortune going forward. Also known as the Lunar New Year or the Spring Festival, the Chinese New Year traditions include many activities and items you can easily adapt for your own celebration.
What Is the Chinese New Year?
Chinese New Year is the annual 15-day celebration representing the new year based on the ancient Chinese calendar. While China adopted the Gregorian calendar long ago, the country still celebrates the Chinese New Year, which is the country’s most important holiday. The celebration centers around family, with people often gathering for family reunions during this time. The Chinese New Year also incorporates specific decorations, gifts, foods and celebration activities.
This holiday serves to celebrate and represent many things, including:
- Recognizing all the hard work put in during the last year
- Enjoying a time to rest and relax with family
- Wishing luck and prosperity for the coming year
- Keeping evil and bad luck away as the new year begins
Traditionally, the Chinese New Year focused on farming and was meant to celebrate the completed farm work while hoping for a bountiful harvest in the new year. As people moved from farming to more business-type careers, the celebration began focusing more on success at work and good profits for the year. Despite modern changes, though, the holiday still focuses on entering the new year with hopes for blessings, good luck and success.
Many of the traditions behind the Chinese New Year’s celebration started during the Shang Dynasty, when it was believed a monster named Nian would eat children and livestock. Loud sounds and the color red scared off the monster according to legend. This led people to decorate in red and make loud sounds, primarily in the form of firecrackers. Those concepts still play a major role in the modern Chinese New Year’s celebrations.
When Is the Chinese New Year?
The Chinese New Year does not fall on January 1st, and it doesn’t fall on the same day every year. The Chinese lunar calendar dictates the date of the holiday each year instead of the Gregorian calendar that is most familiar and commonly used. The Chinese New Year holiday lines up with the second new moon after the Winter Solstice. The date always falls between January 21st and February 20th, but the specific date fluctuates each year.
The Chinese New Year celebration itself lasts 15 days, from Chinese New Year’s Day to the 15th day of the first Chinese month, but the preparation for the event starts much earlier. Most people are off work for about seven days total, including Chinese New Year’s Eve, Chinese New Year’s Day and five days immediately after. For example, in 2017, January 28th is the Chinese New Year. Most people start their break from work on January 27th, which is Chinese New Year’s Eve for 2017. They continue the break until February 2nd. The dates change each year, but the seven-day window is typical. Students often get one month off from school.
Traditional Parts of the Chinese New Year Celebration
Preparation for the Chinese New Year begins in the last lunar month of the year in anticipation of the new year. The events continue past New Year’s Day.
The typical phases include:
- Day 23 to 29 of last lunar month of the year: Cleaning the house, which represents sweeping away the old in preparation for the new, is an important part of the preparation phase. Cleaning also symbolizes sweeping away the bad luck. This cleaning is sometimes called “sweeping the dust.” This period is also spent shopping for the new year, including the food, decorations and clothes that serve as part of the celebration. Buying new clothes and other items symbolizes the preparation and welcoming of the new things coming in the new year. This is also important because most shops close during the New Year celebration period.
- Day 30 of the last lunar month of the year: The 30th day of the last month in the lunar calendar is Chinese New Year’s Eve. This is the day when most of the decorations go up and families gather for the reunion dinner. Kids receive red envelopes containing lucky money. Staying up late is also important — some people stay up just until midnight, while others stay up all night.
- Day 1 of the new year: This is Chinese New Year’s Day. Celebrations include setting off firecrackers and fireworks and offering up sacrifices for ancestors. The fireworks begin just after midnight right as the first day of the new year officially begins.
- Day 2 to 7 of the new year: Visits with family and friends often take place throughout this period. People have these days off from work, and most shops are closed during this period.
- Day 8 of the new year: People generally resume work at this point even though the celebration doesn’t officially end until the 15th day of the new year.
- Day 15 of the new year: On the 15th day, the Chinese New Year’s period officially ends with the Lantern Festival. People gather to light and admire lanterns. Fireworks are often set off. Sweet dumplings are also a tradition for the Lantern Festival. The dumplings represent harmony, happiness and reunion.
Important Symbols of the Chinese New Year
Several symbols and items play key roles in the festivities. When planning your own Chinese New Year’s celebration, incorporate these symbols when possible to create a more authentic experience. Discuss the purpose and significance of the symbols with your kids to help them learn more about the celebration.
Some of the common symbols of the Chinese New Year include:
- Red envelopes: Children and unmarried adults without jobs receive lucky money in red envelopes on Chinese New Year’s Eve. The envelopes are often decorated with gold designs. Certain numbers are considered unlucky, and the amount of money should not equal those numbers. For example, four is an unlucky number in the Chinese culture, so the envelopes should not contain $4.
- Fireworks and firecrackers: Loud fireworks and firecrackers are a big part of the Chinese New Year celebration. In the Chinese culture, the loud sounds are thought to scare away evil spirits.
- Dragons: The Chinese culture places a strong emphasis on the dragon because the Chinese are said to have descended from the creature. Decorations showing dragons are popular, as are dragon dances, where two or more people dance inside a dragon costume. These dragon dancers sometimes perform in front of office buildings as people start heading back to work.
- Rabbits: Even when the zodiac animal of the year is not the rabbit, many New Year’s decorations and lanterns feature the animal. The rabbit symbolizes Chang E, a goddess who jumped to the moon with a rabbit as her travel mate. Rabbit-shaped lanterns are common at the Festival of Lanterns on the 15th day of the new year.
- Fu character: The Fu character represents good fortune and happiness, making it an important character during the Chinese New Year. People often use it to symbolize yearning for the future and best wishes. The character is often placed upside down to represent the arrival of good fortune and happiness. It is custom to paste the character on gates or inside the home on certain pieces of furniture.
Preparing for the Chinese New Year
If you want to celebrate the Chinese New Year authentically, start with the preparation phase in your own home. Leading up to Chinese New Year’s Eve, clean your home to get rid of the old in preparation for the new. Think of it as an early start to your spring cleaning. Get the kids to clean willingly by playing up the role of cleaning as part of the celebration and welcoming the new to your home.
Plan a shopping trip for all of your Chinese New Year decorations and foods, too. Unless you visit or live in China, you won’t likely have to deal with shop closures, but you will be fully prepared with all of the supplies you need for your celebration. Buy each family member a new outfit for the event. If you have kids, talk to them about the significance of these activities to get them excited about starting anew.
Decorating for the Celebration
Decorating for the Chinese New Year is a simple way to celebrate the holiday no matter where you live. While some people decorate ahead of time, many people wait until Chinese New Year’s Eve to put up the decorations. Red plays a prominent role in the festivities, so most of the decorations are red as well. Each year is also associated with an animal based on the Chinese animal zodiac cycle, so decorations incorporating that year’s animal are common. For example, 2017 is a rooster year, while 2018 is a dog year, and 2019 is a pig year. Decorations for the 2017 celebration likely include images of roosters.
When decorating for the Chinese New Year, consider these options:
- Red lanterns: Paper lanterns often decorate homes during the Chinese New Year. Hang red paper lanterns in your own home in preparation for your celebration.
- Animal decorations: Determine the animal of the year, and incorporate images of the animal into the decorations.
- Paper cutouts: Pasting red paper cutouts to north and south windows is a traditional decoration option. The cutouts often feature images related to farming, legends, flowers, birds or the Chinese zodiac animal of that year. The tradition isn’t as popular in the southern parts of China, but the tradition is still often followed in the northern parts of China.
- Red couplets: Couplets hung along the front door often signify the Chinese New Year. Couplets consist of red paper with black ink featuring phrases traditionally with seven characters. The purpose of these couplets is to send best wishes, and they are believed to keep away evil from the home.
- New Year’s paintings: Another popular decoration is the New Year’s painting. Like other decorations, the purpose is to represent best wishes during the celebration. Popular images on the paintings include flowers, birds, ripe fruit, golden roosters, images from legends and Guanyin — the Goddess of mercy and fertility.
- Gate god images: A major focus of the Chinese New Year is to keep away evil, and images of the gate gods are a popular way to do this. The images are often pasted to the front door to protect the home.
Dressing for the Celebration
Just as red is popular in the decorations for the Chinese New Year celebration, wearing red is also common. To celebrate with your family, get everyone a new red outfit. If your city has a Chinese market or Chinese shopping area, consider buying Chinese-inspired attire for the celebration.
Don’t forget red underwear for everyone in the family, too. Red underwear is often sold at the market. Since red is thought to fend off bad luck, many people think it’s lucky to wear red underwear.
No matter what type of clothing you choose, to keep with the Chinese tradition, it’s important to avoid wearing black. The color black is associated with death, which goes against the happy vibe of creating luck and prosperity for the new year.
Food to Prepare for the Chinese New Year
Your Chinese New Year celebration isn’t complete without a Chinese-inspired menu. Most Chinese families come together, reuniting all generations for a meal at home. Fish often highlights the menu for Chinese New Year celebrations. This comes from the belief that fish brings a surplus of money and luck, since the word for “fish” sounds like the word for “surplus.” Meat from other small animals, such as chickens or ducks, are also common for the celebration. Dumplings are a very important part of the celebration as well, especially in northern regions of China. They are thought to bring good luck.
In addition to fish and dumplings, consider the following dishes for your Chinese New Year menu:
- Sweet rice balls
- Spring rolls
- Glutinous rice cakes
- Long noodles, which represent a long life
- Black sesame rice ball soup
- Won ton soup
- Eight Treasures rice, which contains glutinous rice, walnuts, dried fruit, raisins, sweet red bean paste, almonds and jujube dates
While the Chinese New Year’s Eve meal is considered the most important, many Chinese families continue gathering throughout the 15-day celebration. Families may rotate the location of the meals throughout the period.
To embrace the true spirit of the Chinese New Year, gather your family on Chinese New Year’s Eve for the traditional reunion dinner. Prepare some Chinese dishes from scratch or look for premade options at the supermarket. While traditional Chinese meals for the celebration take place at home, you might decide to dine out at a Chinese restaurant as part of your own modern celebration. The most important thing is to focus on the family and enjoy a happy time together.
Chinese New Year Activities
If you live in a large city, you may find local events related to the Chinese New Year. The holiday spreads far beyond China, with organized events all around the world. San Francisco holds the largest celebration outside of China, but you can find smaller scale events in many cities.
If you can’t find organized activities in your area, plan your own celebrations at home. Try these ideas to keep your family entertained:
- Make your own decorations: Depending on where you live, finding premade decorations for the celebration may be difficult. Turn the decorations into a project by making your own. Make paper cutouts for the windows. Paint Chinese characters onto red paper to make your own couplets. Craft red paper lanterns or add decorations to inexpensive paper lanterns from the store.
- Send greeting cards: Cards are popular for the Chinese New Year, and sentiments similar to those of Christmas cards often fill the greeting cards. Make your own greeting cards for the new year to send to family.
- Pass out red envelopes of money: Slip some money inside red envelopes to give your kids.
- Cook Chinese foods: Try your hand at making one or more of the classic Chinese dishes typically served on Chinese New Year’s Eve.
- Stay up late: Chinese tradition dictates staying up late on the Chinese New Year’s Eve. Stay up together as a family, enjoying each other’s company as you wait for the start of the new lunar year.
- Set off firecrackers: If you live in an area that allows firecrackers, set them off in celebration of the new year. Be considerate of your neighbors, though. Setting off the firecrackers after midnight may result in upset neighbors.
- Do a dragon dance: You don’t need a fancy dragon costume to perform your own dance. Throw a blanket over your heads, and make up your own dragon dance.
- Light lanterns: Create your own Festival of Lanterns on the 15th day of the lunar new year. Hang lots of paper lanterns with battery-operated tea lights inside.
Focus on Family
Families come together to celebrate the Chinese New Year, even if they live far away. Several generations commonly gather around tables to enjoy Chinese New Year’s Eve dinner together. This is considered one of the most important meals, even though families often come together throughout the celebration.
Incorporate this idea in your own celebration by inviting extended family to join in on your Chinese New Year’s festivities. Plan a large family meal on Chinese New Year’s Eve. If some family members can’t join you, plan to visit them sometime during the 15 days.
Things to Avoid During the Chinese New Year
While much of the tradition focuses on what you should do to create a positive, happy, lucky new year, there are also superstitions about things you shouldn’t do during the 15-day celebration. Many of these actions are thought to bring bad luck upon the family.
Avoid doing these things during your celebration to keep the good luck coming:
- Cleaning: While cleaning is an important part of the preparation phase, it is thought to be bad luck to clean during the actual celebration. This is because you sweep away the good luck if you do.
- Washing hair: The same idea applies to washing your hair during the Chinese New Year. You wash away the luck.
- Crying children: If a child cries during the Chinese New Year’s celebration, it is believed to bring bad luck to the family.
- Saying bad words: Words with a negative meaning, such as death, broken and illness, are forbidden during the celebration.
- Lending or borrowing: It is considered bad luck for your financial future if you lend or borrow money during the celebration.
Whether or not you believe in superstitions, avoiding these things creates a more positive environment. You may even use it as a launching point for being more grateful and having a more positive attitude. We don’t recommend waiting too long to clean or to wash your hair, though.
Your Chinese New Year’s celebration can be as involved or as basic as you want. Take the traditions of the holiday that speak to you and run with them. Get kids involved in choosing the activities you do to celebrate — the red envelope of money will likely top their lists. Starting your own Chinese New Year’s celebration lets you experience a greater cultural understanding while starting your own family traditions you can look forward to with every new year on the lunar calendar.