What is the history of Chinese New Year?

Lunar New Year: DO and DON'T to get the Most Luckies Things
Photo: Chinesenewyear

When people talk about the "holiday season" in some western countries, they typically refer to that period between Thanksgiving dinner and New Year's Day. But shortly after that, another massive holiday brings friends and family together in several Asian countries, with concurrent parties that carry on the traditions stateside. The Lunar New Year, most commonly associated with the Chinese New Year or Spring Festival, typically falls sometime between January 21 and February 20 annually. Lunar New Year 2021 is on February 12, and it's the Year of the Ox.

It's called the Lunar New Year because it marks the first new moon of the lunisolar calendars traditional to many east Asian countries including China and Vietnam, which are regulated by the cycles of the moon and sun. As the New York Times explains, "A solar year—the time it takes Earth to orbit the sun—lasts around 365 days, while a lunar year, or 12 full cycles of the Moon, is roughly 354 days." As with the Jewish lunisolar calendar, "a month is still defined by the moon, but an extra month is added periodically to stay close to the solar year." This is why the new year falls on a different day within that month-long window each year.

The origins of the Chinese New Year festival are thousands of years old and are steeped in legends but it is unclear when the beginning of the year was celebrated before the Qin Dynasty, according to National Online,

A small-scale Spring Festival is said to have been celebrated as early as at the time of the legendary sage-emperors Yao and Shun.

Historically, various Chinese dynasties celebrated the Spring Festival in different ways, and at times influenced each other and added certain customs and traditions to it.

The Spring Festival is supposed to have been initiated in the Shang Dynasty (Chinese: 商朝; Pinyin: Shāng cháo) and the custom of ancestor worship was included in the festivities.

During the Western Zhou Dynasty (Chinese: 西周, Pinyin: Xī zhōu), it was custom to begin agriculture on New Year celebration.

During the Han Dynasty (Chinese: 漢朝; Pinyin: Hàn cháo), the formation of the rituals became popular, including ceremonial gathering and the use of 'fireworks' in the form of burning bamboo started to appear during the celebrations. Due to thermal expansion when bamboo with its cavity is on fire, it bursts and makes a loud bang and hence is regarded as 'early firework'.

During the Cao Wei (Chinese:曹魏; Pinyin: Cáo wèi) and Jin Dynasties (Chinese: 晋朝; Pinyin: Jìn cháo) the practice of shou sui (Chinese: 守岁, Pinyin: shǒusuì, translated: guarding age or guarding the year) became popular as well as the use of firecrackers. Shou sui is the gathering and staying together during the time between the change of the years.

Displaying riddles on lanterns during the Lantern Festival became popular during the Tang Dynasty (Chinese: 唐朝; pinyin: Táng cháo) and solving the riddles on the lanterns is known as caidengmi (traditional Chinese: 猜燈謎; pinyin: cāidēngmí).

In the Song Dynasty (Chinese: 宋朝; Pinyin: Sòng cháo) hollowed bamboo poles firecrackers became loaded with gunpowder. Gunpowder was discovered in China in the Tang Dynasty by Taoist monks-alchemists searching for an elixir of immortality.

Emperor Taizu of the Northern Song Dynasty was presented with the first gunpowder - impregnated fire arrows in 969 AD.

Since the Southern Song Dynasty (Chinese: 南宋; pinyin: Nán sòng) fishermen along the coast of Guangzhou started to establish the tradition of eating the yusheng dish on renri, the 7th day of the Chinese New Year celebration.

Legend of why Chinese Lunar New Year is celebrated

Like all traditional festivals in China, Chinese New Year is steeped in stories and myths. One of the most popular is about the mythical beast Nian (/nyen/), who ate livestock, crops, and even people on the eve of a new year. (It's interesting that Nian, the 'yearly beast', sounds the same as 'year' in Chinese.)

To prevent Nian from attacking people and causing destruction, people put food at their doors for Nian.

It's said that a wise old man figured out that Nian was scared of loud noises (firecrackers) and the color red. So, then people put red lanterns and red scrolls on their windows and doors to stop Nian from coming inside. Crackling bamboo (later replaced by firecrackers) was lit to scare Nian away.

The prosperity of economies and cultures during the Tang, Song, and Qing dynasties accelerated the development of the Spring Festival. The customs during the festival became similar to those of modern times.

Setting off firecrackers, visiting relatives and friends, and eating dumplings became important parts of the celebration.

More entertaining activities arose, such as watching dragon and lion dances during the Temple Fair and enjoying lantern shows.

The function of the Spring Festival changed from a religious one to entertaining and social ones, more like that of today.

In 1912, the government decided to abolish the Chinese New Year and the lunar calendar, but adopted the Gregorian calendar instead and made January 1 the official start of the new year.

After 1949, Chinese New Year has renamed the Spring Festival. It was listed as a nationwide public holiday.

What are the significances of the Chinese Lunar New Year?

Lunar New Year traditions include the Dragon Dance and the distribution of red envelopes filled with money.

"When you walk around Chinatown, if you're not familiar with the layers of meaning in these festivals, you may miss them," Maasbach says.

Upside-down fu characters: On Chinese New Year, you'll commonly see a calligraphy character on a square of red paper, hung in a diamond shape. The character, 福 [fú], which means good luck, is hung upside down for Lunar New Year. "The word 'to arrive,' or to begin, is a homophone for the word for upside down," Maasbach explains. Through this bit of pictorial wordplay, the symbol effectively means that good luck is arriving, or pouring down on you, shows oprahmag.

Red pockets full of money: Known as lì xì in Vietnamese or hóngbāo in Mandarin, in China they're traditionally gifted from an elder or parent to children, or really anyone who's unmarried. "It's really fun, because even if your brother is 40 and he's unmarried he still gets red envelopes," Maasbach says. The custom arose out of a tradition of using coins as a gift to ward off evil spirits.

It's an occasion for kids to have a little fun when asking for an envelope, too. When asking, "you have to say things like 'xin nian kuai le', or 'Happy New Year,' or 'gong xǐ fā cái', which means 'make money in the new year'. But it kind of has a rhyme," Maasbach says. "You'll say, 'gong xǐ fā cái, hóngbāo ná lái!'" This translates to, 'Make a lot of money in the new year—now give me my red envelope!"

15-Day Celebration of Chinese New Year

First day, zhengyue 1, ’Birthday of Chicken’

The festival traditionally begins on the first day of the first lunar month (Traditional Chinese: 正月; Pinyin: zhēngyuè) in the Chinese calendar and ends on the 15th; this day is called Lantern Festival.

The first day of the New Year is known as Yuan Dan (Chinese: 元旦; pinyin: yuándàn (First Morning of the year), New Year’s Day, First Day (or Duan Ri).

On the first day, the oldest and most senior members will be visited, the visits serve to strengthen family ties. Bài nián refers to both, pay a New Year's call as well as 'wishing somebody a Happy New Year'.

There is also the tradition of welcoming guests with tea and sweet treats, such as sugared fruits which are supposed to sweeten one’s upcoming year.

Second day, zhengyue 2, ‘Birthday of Dog’

People say that after being offered sacrifices, Tsai Shen, the God of Wealth, leaves for heaven on the second day of the lunar New Year.

People will burn the picture they welcomed on the New Year’s Eve and see the deity off, wishing for a luckier and more prosperous year.

In honour of the deity, people will eat wonton, resembling the shape of a ingot.

Traditionally married women will visit and pay respect to their birth parents.

On the second day, the Chinese pray to their ancestors as well as to all the gods.

Since the day is characterised by the birthday of the dogs, pets and strays will be fed well.

Third day, zhengyue 3, ‘Birthday of Pig’

Families who had an immediate relative deceased in the past 3 years will not go house-visiting as a form of respect to the dead. The third day of the New Year is allocated to grave-visiting instead. Some people conclude it is inauspicious to do any house visiting at all, as it is believed that evil spirits roam the earth this day and hence it would be bad luck to be outdoors.

Businesses which had been closed during the prior festivities will be reopened and prayers will be held in order to be blessed with prosperity in the upcoming year. Conservative Chinese businesses do not open until after the fifth day due to priviously mentioned roaming ghosts.

Fourth Day, zhengyue 4, ‘Birthday of Sheep’

The fourth day is basically a continuity of the third day.

Fifth day, zhengyue 5, ‘Birthday of Ox, Cattle’

Lunar New Year: DO and DON'T to get the Most Luckies Things

The day is regarded as the birthday of the God of Wealth and hence respect is payed to the god. Also, it is considered not too wise to leave the house for too long, just in case the God of Wealth should pay a visit to the family's house.

All businesses will be reopened on that day.

Sweeping the floor is not considered bad luck anymore.

In northern China, people eat Jiǎozi (dumplings) on the morning of pò wǔ (Traditional Chinese: 破五, Pinyin: pò wǔ, translated: break five).

Friends and classmates will be visited.

The day is as well considered to have a connection to the five basic colours, hence to the Five Elements Theory.

Six day, zhengyue 6, ‘Birthday of Horse’

The sixth day marks a time to visit temples, relatives and friends.

Seventh day, zhengyue 7, ‘Birthday of Men’

The seventh day of the first lunar month is named renrì (Traditional Chinese: 人日, Pinyin: rén rì), literally Human Day and is considered to be the birthday of ordinary, or common men. The day is also called Day of Men or Men Day.

Eighth day - The Completion Day

On the eighth day the Fujian people have another family reunion dinner, and at midnight they pray to the Jade Emperor.

Ninth day

The birthday of the Jade Emperor, highly revered in taoist believe. The Jade Emperor is also known as the Yù Huáng or Yù Dì, and is identified as the God of Heaven, the Ruler of all Heavens (of which the Chinese have over 30), Earth and the Underworld/ Hell, Creator of the Universe, later the Emperor of the Universe, and Lord of the Imperial Court. He is said to have been born several millennia before our era as the offspring of the King of the Pure Felicity Kingdom of Lofty Heavenly Majestic Lights and Ornaments and of the Empress of Precious Moonlight.

From the Tenth to the Twelfth Day

of New Year there is more feasting with friends and family.

Thirteenth day

A time to diet a bit after so much rich food, vegetarian food like rice and mustard greens are eaten to cleanse the digestive systems.

Forteenth day, The Lantern Decoration Day

Preparations will be made for the Lantern Festival.

Fifteenth day, Lantern Festival

Lunar New Year: DO and DON'T to get the Most Luckies Things
Photo: Time out

(Traditional Chinese: 元宵節 , Pinyin: yuán xiāo jié, literally: first night festival)

The 15th day marks the first full moon after the Spring Festival and of the New Year, also known as yuán xiāo jié meaning "first night of the full moon". The day is as well known as Lantern Festival day.

Another reunion dinner is held with lanterns and oranges being a large part of the celebrations.

It is customary to eat special sweet dumplings called yuanxiao resembling the shape of the full moon. These round balls are made of glutinous rice flour stuffed with sugar fillings, symbolizing reunion, shows nationsonline.

Dos and Don'ts Things Should be Noted

Lunar New Year: DO and DON'T to get the Most Luckies Things
Photo: Best China Info

The following things you should and should not do during Chinese New Year

1. Wait Pa, you mean we get to stay up late?

Children should stay up as late as possible on New Year’s Eve, to send off the old year and welcome the new. According to tradition, it is also believed that the later they stay up, the longer their parents will live. Of course, they would be more than happy to enjoy more playtime with their cousins after the family’s reunion dinner!

2. Merry… I Mean 恭喜发财 Uncle, Aunty!

Remind your children (and yourself) to greet everyone they meet by saying “恭喜发财”(Gong Xi Fa Cai), which means “Wishing you a Happy and Prosperous New Year”. It’s customary to wish each other as a way of putting all grudges aside and offering sincere peace and well wishes to all around. Kids sometimes have to be reminded to say their Thank You’s, and not to open their red packets in front of the receiver.

3. The Early Bird Gets The Ang Bao

On the first day of Chinese New Year, children should wake up early in the morning to greet their parents and wish them a happy and healthy New Year. In return, they will receive a red packet blessing from their parents.

4. Nothing But Red

Everyone, including children and babies, should be dressed in new clothes to celebrate the new year, and in bright colours. Tell your son to save his favourite Batman tee shirt for another occasion, and don a red one instead. Red is a favourite colour of choice, because it symbolizes luck and prosperity. Above all, don’t wear white or black clothing, since these are the traditional colours of mourning, cites thenewageparents.

5. Come, help Mama clean and sweep the floor

Before the New Year arrives, every home should be spring-cleaned from top to bottom – and your children can help out in this too! After that, house cleaning (or any sort of housework) is frowned upon during the New Year holiday, because the Chinese believe that this is tantamount to sweeping away any good luck.

6. Watch Your Tongue Boy!

Remind the children not to quarrel during Chinese New Year (don’t we wish this could apply all year round?) and to avoid mentioning topics like ghosts and death in their conversations. Other words that are a strict no-no are the number four (which sounds like the word for “death”) and any kind of vulgar language.

8. Be Extra Careful

Remind children to be extra careful not to break anything since breaking dishes invite more misfortune in the new year. Even when you’re eating fish, be careful not to break any of the bones!

9. Did You Bring Your Oranges?

It is a tradition to bring along mandarin oranges for visiting during the Chinese New Year as the fruit in mandarin is ‘橘’, which sounds like ‘吉’, meaning ‘auspicious’.

At every home you visit and upon entering the house, each member of the family (including children) should present two mandarin oranges to the heads of the household, and offer the customary New Year greetings as well.

It is believed that some improper behaviors in the Chinese Lunar New Year period will affect their luck throughout the year. These are some taboos:

1. Don't Anger and Don't Argue

Since everybody is in a festival mood under a joyful and hilarious atmosphere, people shouldn't argue each other. People should use auspicious words, not dirty words. Also parents shouldn't scold or punish the children. Otherwise, you will have more argument in the New Year.

2. Don't Touch shear, Needle and Knife

Women shouldn't use knife or shear in the kitchen, which indicates evil, anger, danger and cutting out the luck. As a result, women don't cook new dishes on this day, people eat meals from the leftover.

3. Don't Break Things

Breaking dish plate, bowel or cup means bad money luck coming. In case that happens, then Chinese put all broken pieces in a round container until the coming trash day.

4. Married Women Don't Visit Parent’s Home

A married woman shouldn't go back to her parent’s home, otherwise her parent’s family will get poorer.

5. Don't Make Dirty and Take Away Trash

To sweep the floor or dump the trash will take away the wealth and luck from the house.

6. Don't Make a Noon Nap

Don't have a lunch nap at noon; otherwise people will be lazy year long.

7. Don't Wash Hair

To wash the hair will wash your good luck away.

8. Don't Wear in Black or White

Don't wear in black or white to visit friends, because black and white are funeral color in China.

9. Don't Visit Unfortunate House

People shouldn't visit friend's house, if they have a family member newly past away.

10. Don't Visit Doctor or Hospital

People shouldn't visit Doctor or Hospital. That will bring illness later during the new year.

11. Don't Have Rice Porridge

Don't eat rice porridge in the morning breakfast; otherwise you won't get rich because only poor people eat rice porridge in the past.

12. Don't Eat Meat in the Morning

Don't eat meat in the morning breakfast, because many gods who are vegetarians arrive New Year Day festival in the morning.

13. Don't Wake Up People

Don't wake up people by calling their names, otherwise that sleeping person needs people's push all year long.

14. Don't Take Unnecessary Medicine

Don't take unnecessary medicine; otherwise you will become unhealthy this year.

15. Don't Wash Clothes

Don't wash clothes, because New Year Day is the birthday of the God of Water.

16. Don't Ask Debtor's Money

If someone owes you money, do not ask for the money back on this day. Otherwise, you will do it often in the rest of the year.

17. Don't Lend or Borrow Money

To borrow money from someone or lend money to someone will cause the money dispute. The worse thing is that it might lead to debit in coming year.

18. Don't Leave Wallet from Your Hands

Don't let people take anything away from your pocket or purse, because that's a sign of money loss in the year, cites chinesefortunecalendar.

19. Here’s Something Fishy

This might sound contradictory – eat lots of fish, but don’t eat it all up. Eating fish is a must for Lunar New Year, because the Chinese word for “fish” (魚, yú) is similar to the word for “plenty” (餘, yú). However, you don’t want to “eat up” all your good fortune – hence you should leave some fish on the plate to symbolize abundance for the future.

Flipping the fish is also considered bad luck. After the top half is eaten, the fish’s spine should be removed instead of flipping the fish, to prevent turning your gain into a loss.

For more information about Chinese Lunar New Year, please click here!

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