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Chinese New Year

When is Chinese New Year?

Chinese New Year falls on the first day of the year in the old Chinese lunar calendar. When this is converted to the Gregorian calendar the date is different each year but always falls between 21st January and 20th February.

Chinese New Year Dragon

What is Chinese New Year?

Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival, is the most important and most festive holiday in China and is celebrated with fireworks and family gatherings, good food and gifts. It is celebrated in China and in Chinese communities across the world.

Before the festivities begin there is a long-held custom of cleaning the home. A 'day for sweeping floors' was noted in the old agricultural calendar as it was important to sweep away any evil spirits lurking in dusty corners and to make a good impression on the Kitchen God who, on New Year's Eve, would report to the Jade Emperor in heaven about each family's cleanliness and generosity to the poor.

Families gather on New Year's Eve and make offerings to the Kitchen God, as well as to other gods of the house and the ancestors. People decorate their gates or doorways with red banners inscribed in black and gold with a pair of lines of poetry which often express wishes for good fortune, long life and many friends. After a special meal, presents are exchanged and red envelopes containing New Year's money are given to the children. Everyone stays up late to celebrate New Year with firework displays and ear-splitting firecrackers.

Chinese New Year Envelopes

There are celebrations in parks and temples on New Year's Day as well as theatre, acrobatics and dragon dances in the streets. Dragons are a symbol of wisdom, power and wealth and the dances are performed to scare away evil spirits and welcome prosperous times. Different colour costumes have different meaning: green is for a great harvest, gold or silver for prosperity, and red for excitement and good fortune. People offer sacrifices to the God of Wealth, wishing for a luckier and more prosperous year.

In the days following New Year, people visit family and friends, beginning with the closest relatives, and bringing red envelopes and gifts such as food, flowers or woodblock prints. Woodblock prints often portray the door gods or the Kitchen God or represent values such as wealth or prosperity or the wish for a thriving family.

Meals include traditional 'lucky' foods, chosen for the significance of their names or appearances. The New Year feast will almost always include a whole fish as a symbol of abundance. The Chinese phrase you yu means 'to have fish' and the word for fish sounds the same as the word meaning 'surplus', so the host serves fish as a way of wishing their friends abundance year after year. Two-foot long noodles, Changshou mian, may be on the menu to represent the wish for a long and healthy life. Oysters may be served because in Cantonese, the word houxi, meaning 'good business' sounds the same as the word for oyster. Crisp, golden spring rolls take their name from the Spring Festival and symbolise bars of gold for wealth and prosperity in the year ahead.

The Spring Festival ends with the Lantern Festival on the fifteenth day of the New Year. Paper lanterns, crafted in many shapes, sizes and styles, are set adrift on lakes, rivers and sea or floated, glowing, into the sky.

Chinese New Year Lanterns

Why does Chinese New Year fall between 21st January and 20th February?

Chinese New Year falls on the first day of the year according to the old Chinese calendar which was based on the phases of the moon. It is always a new moon day, occurring on the second new moon after the winter solstice.

When the Republic of China was founded in 1912, the government adopted the Gregorian calendar which meant that 1st January became officially the first day of the year. When converted to the Gregorian calendar, the date of Chinese New Year falls on different dates each year, but always between 21st January and 20th February. Since 1912, the lunar New Year's Day has also become known as Spring Festival, even though it falls during winter in most parts of China.

When was Chinese New Year first celebrated?

Chinese New Year has been celebrated for thousands of years, dating from a time when most of China's population worked on the land. The holiday falls at the one time of year when there was a short respite from working in the fields and farmers and farm workers could take a break and travel home to celebrate with family members and loved ones.

According to legend the festivities may have first occurred at the time of the Xia Dynasty (around 2070 to 1600 BCE). Certainly by the time of the Shang Dynasty (around 1600 to 1050 BCE) people were honouring the gods with ceremonies and sacrifices at the end or beginning of the year.

Interesting facts about Chinese New Year

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