Visitors enjoy festive views at the Ditan Park in Beijing on January 23 (XINHUA)
The Chinese Lunar New Year, which is also called the Spring Festival, is the most important Chinese festival and is marked by family reunions. Millions of Chinese travel home and celebrate the festival with their families. Some go to the countryside—regardless of distance—while others even travel across the world to spend festival days with their families. It's like a combination of Christmas and New Year in the West.
The Spring Festival falls on the first day of the first lunar month, thus, the date changes every year since it is based on the lunar calendar. In 2019, it fell on February 5, and Chinese people are enjoying a seven-day holiday which started on the last day of the previous year.
According to legend, the origin of the Spring Festival comes from ancient people fighting Nian, a ferocious mythical beast with a sharp corner on his head that ate livestock and harmed the people. For most of the year, Nian lived in the sea, only appearing in villages on the night of the last day of a year. To protect themselves, villagers had to hide deep in mountainous areas at that time of year. But it all changed when people found out that Nian was afraid of the color red, light, fire and loud noises. After that, every household put red decorations in front of gates, lit firecrackers and kept lights on all night on the Lunar New Year's Eve to keep the monster away. The following morning, seeing that the methods worked, villagers were very happy and visited their families and friends to congratulate each other.
Nowadays, people still practice some of these traditions when preparing for and celebrating the festival. While the most important days are the Lunar New Year's Eve and the first three days of new year, people start preparations days before and festive activities last until the 15th day of the first month of the lunar calendar. Traditionally, people make specific preparations on certain days, starting on the 23rd day of the 12th lunar month, including cleaning the house, preparing food for the family reunion dinner on the Lunar New Year's Eve and putting up New Year's decorations. On the Lunar New Year's Eve, family members gather and stay up until midnight to welcome in the New Year. On the first day of the Lunar New Year, everyone dresses up and extends warm greetings to each other. They also pay visits to extended family and friends during the following days.
Some traditions have been weakened or upgraded as times have changed. It is worth mentioning that China has 56 ethnic groups that have many different customs to celebrating the Spring Festival, which represent their own unique traditions.
Steamed buns in the shape of the zodiac animals (XINHUA)
The 12 Zodiac Animals
Twelve Chinese zodiac animals represent the 12-year lunar cycle. In chronological order, they are: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig. The selection of these animals is closely connected to the totem culture of ancient times and each animal is assigned a unique meaning and special characteristics. For example, the rat is shrewd, adaptable and vigorous, while the ox is industrious, powerful and enduring.
There are many legends as to why these 12 animals were chosen and why they are in their current order, but there is no unequivocal conclusion.
During the year of a specific zodiac animal, the entire year, especially during the Spring Festival, will be closely related to the animal. Since 2019 is the Year of the Pig, there are decorations, food and clothes with the image of a pig as a way to celebrate the year.
People in Weifang, east China's Shandong Province, shop for Spring Festival decorations on January 25 (XINHUA)
Speaking of Spring Festival decorations, the first thing that people think of is probably the color red, which usually represents luck, happiness and fortune.
One of these red decorations is a couplet, which consists of two vertical paper strips and a horizontal one with Chinese calligraphy in black or gold characters on red paper expressing good wishes or statements. The two vertical strips are pasted on each side of the house door frame and the horizontal one over the top of the frame. Today, some people write out their own couplets using thick ink brushes, while others buy the couplets ready-made.
On the upper part of the door itself, people put a rhombus-shaped red paper with the Chinese character Fu, which means blessing, in the center. Sometimes people paste it upside down because in Chinese, a reversed Fu is the homonym for "Fu arrives."
Red papercutting works are also commonly seen at people's homes, usually glued on windows or walls. Some of the most common designs are the character Fu, the character Chun, which means Spring or the Spring Festival in Chinese, or the image of the upcoming Lunar New Year zodiac animal.
Round or oval red lanterns are also a must during the Lunar New Year. Most of them are made of red paper or cloth, with black or gold calligraphy of lucky words on them. People hang these lanterns in front of their doors, on trees or utility poles on both sides of streets or inside a building as a way of wishing for happiness, peace, prosperity and good fortune.
They also decorate their houses with images of legendary deities or mythological figures, which are believed to bring a well-off life.
It is believed that wearing new clothes from head to toe on the first day of the Lunar New Year symbolizes a farewell to the old and a new start with fresh hopes for the New Year. Chinese people usually wear red or other bright-colored clothes during the Spring Festival to go with the festive and upbeat mood.
In the past, people looked forward to the Spring Festival because it was one of the few times during the year that they were able to afford new clothes. Today, as people's living standard elevates, wearing new clothes is not a problem for many, but many Chinese people still hold on to this tradition.
Residents of Qinhuangdao City in Hebei Province display dumplings they made on January 22 (XINHUA)
Food and Feasts
The delicious foods associated with the Spring Festival start with a bowl of Laba porridge, a sweet and thick porridge of glutinous rice, peanuts and lotus kernels, on Laba Festival which falls on the eighth day of the 12th lunar month, beginning the countdown to the Spring Festival.
According to tradition, in the days leading up to the festival, tanggua (a kind of crisp sugar), tofu, meat and steamed buns are prepared on specific days, with the biggest preparations saved for the family reunion dinner on the eve of the Lunar New Year.
Despite the development of the catering and delivery service industry, the tradition of an annual homemade banquet still wins out for the majority of Chinese families since there is a joy in cooking and sharing meals with loved ones.
The yearly reunion dinner is still the most important meal for many Chinese. Not only is this meal more lavish and plentiful than usual, it is also a time for renewing family bonds.
Among the essential menu items are chicken, fish and tofu, since these homophonic words carry auspicious meanings. For example, fish is the symbol for abundance at the end of the year and good luck for the coming one. In some regions, there is a custom of leaving a portion of the dishes for the first day of the Lunar New Year to symbolize completeness.
Dumplings are an indispensable part of the Spring Festival dinner table, especially for northerners. Jiaozi, Chinese for dumpling, means the changing of the years, thus eating dumplings marks the beginning of a new year. Another reason dumplings are so popular during the Spring Festival is due to their shape, which resembles an ancient Chinese gold ingot and symbolizes fortune. In some families, a coin is placed inside some of the dumplings during preparation. Whoever eats the dumpling with the coin in it, as the tradition goes, will be the luckiest person and will accumulate great wealth in the coming year.
In south China, glutinous rice cakes and balls are traditional festival foods, representing a higher salary or promotion, and completeness and family reunion, respectively. Fine wine is also part of the holiday feast.
Dragon dances are often seen during Spring Festival celebrations and are a traditional performance in Chinese culture (XINHUA)
After the scrumptious dinner, the children in the family receive money in red packets from the elders of the family, to dispel evil spirits and wish good fortune for the coming year. With the rise of instant messaging apps like WeChat, digital red packets are becoming more popular and a sizable red envelope in a chat group always starts a lively grabbing game.
Staying up to welcome in the Lunar New Year is another tradition on Lunar New Year's Eve, ensuring a blessed New Year, while driving away all evil. Many activities are organized for family members to stay awake the whole night, including playing mahjong and cards and watching the Spring Festival Gala presented by China Central Television.
Since 1983, the gala has accompanied generations of Chinese ringing in the Lunar New Year beginning at 8:00 p.m. on the New Year's Eve. The more than 4-hour live broadcast features music, dance, comedy, opera and other performances, and is still one of the most watched television shows despite declining viewership in recent years. In 2018, some 1.13 billion people at home and abroad watched the gala, including on the Internet and social network.
The countdown is an important part of the gala, and when midnight brings in the Lunar New Year, firecrackers can be heard in neighborhoods, drowning out the New Year's bells tolling on TV.
On the Lunar New Year's Day, family members dress up and have dumplings or glutinous rice cakes for their first meal. On the second day, married couples visit the wife's parents with gifts and good wishes, followed by visits to other relatives and friends. Along with activities such as mahjong, more hearty feasts are prepared so people can chat and enjoy food and drink together.
Children prepare for a Shehuo performance, an ancient folk art, which is popular during the Spring Festival, on January 26 (XINHUA)
Also starting on the first day of the Lunar New Year, public celebrations will take place for several days around the country. Many original folk art performances will be presented, including the Yangko dance in north China and the dragon and lion dances in southern regions. Local temple fairs will provide entertainment and markets, where residents and tourists alike can enjoy performances and games and taste local snacks.
It is safe to say that the Spring Festival has something for everyone, from family reunions and mouthwatering food to new clothes, decorations and entertainment. Chinese Lunar New Year's traditions demonstrate gratitude for the gifts received and hopes for a fresh start and good fortune for the year to come.
Copyedited by Rebeca Toledo
Comments to firstname.lastname@example.org