Chinese New Year facts are a fun introduction to the country’s history and customs. As a people with over 5000 years of written history, China has some of the longest standing traditions. I never gave a second thought to its many practices until I went back for a visit each year.
As a day that occurs between January 21 and February 20 each year based on the Lunar Calendar, the significance of CNY for the Chinese people is evident in a 15-day celebration. From beautiful lights to carefully planned shows, family feasts to daily outings, the entire fiesta is full of activities.
It’s always a treat to be home for the holidays. In addition to the sweet chaos of being with the whole family, my hometown Xi’an becomes especially spectacular during this time of the year.
The entire city is bathed in halos of gold and blue. Tens of thousands of trees are decorated with colorful lights. Bright red lanterns line street corners and the urban layout’s magnificent downtown core is even more breathtaking.
As ancient as the city of Xi’an is, Chinese traditions during the New Year is just as venerable. Here are a few things that will help you understand CNY like a local.
8. The Dates Of Chinese New Year
Chinese New Year festivities can last up to a few weeks. From family meals to friendly outings, it is a celebration with those closest to you. Aside from the day of Da Nian Chu Yi (New Year’s Day), the following dates are also important.
Da Nian 30/Tuan Yuan Ye (New Year’s Eve/Reunion Night): On NYE, the whole family gets together for some dinner and drinks. It is custom for sons to bring their family to their parents’ home.
Da Nian Chu Yi (New Year’s Day): It is tradition to stay home on this day. The streets will be relatively deserted as people spend time with their family.
On the right is a photo I took of the inside of the subway on New Year’s Day. For a city with a population of approximately 12 million, the subway is almost always completely packed. Having the entire compartment to myself was an absolute luxury.
Da Nian Chu Er (Second day of the New Year): Daughters will bring the family (husbands and children) back home to their side of the family.
From the third day of the New Year to the fourteenth, every day has specific rituals or customs passed down from long ago. All in all, people will spend a lot of time visiting their extended families and friends, and more time eating.
Da Nian Chu Shi-Wu/Yuan Xiao Jie (The fifteenth day of the New Year/Lantern Festival): The Lantern Festival signals the end of New Year festivities. Families will get together for another meal and some sweet Tang Yuan, a Chinese dessert with a number of different fillings.
Of course, due to the geological size of China and its number of minorities, many traditions may vary. Customs can also differ with each household’s preference, background, and a number of variables.
7. Specific Eats And Dishes
Chinese people take our food very seriously. From daily meal planning to herbs and medicines, the act of eating is not merely to fill one’s stomach, but also for family unity and good fortune.
On Da Nian 30, it is popular for the family to gather around a table and enjoy some dishes. Dumplings are common during get-togethers in the north.
Without a doubt, a good wordplay is much respected in Chinese culture. In addition to the food above, 鱼, or fish (“年年有余 (nian nian you yu), here, 余 is homophonic with 鱼”, wishing abundance year after year), meatballs (the roundness symbolizing the reunion of the family re: yuan xiao), and other dishes also make frequent appearances.
6. Paying Tribute To Your Ancestors
In contrast to the focus on individualism in Western societies, most Asian countries, with its collectivist cultures, place emphasis on family and group goals. This is especially evident during the Chinese Spring Festival.
Aside from 清明节, Chingming Festival, where Chinese families visit the tombs of their ancestors to offer prayers and make ritual offerings, CNY is another time of the year that such offerings are present.
While not every family visit the tombs of their forefathers, most do place the photo of their ancestors somewhere visible in the home. Food, fruits, and other edibles are placed in front of these photos to show respect.
Many would visit a temple with similar reasonings, whether it is to light a candle in the name of their ancestors or speak a word of prayer, such tributes are a long-lived tradition in the Chinese culture.
5. Chinese New Year Gala
The Spring Festival Show is a televised Chinese variety show that happens the night before Chinese New Year. As one of the most popular televised variety shows in the world, the gala garners over 700 million views during its broadcasts. Families gather together for dinner and a laugh.
Without a doubt, the New Year Gala is a core event during the night’s activities.
4. Antithetical Couplet/Duilian
Duilian is extremely popular among the Chinese people. When we encounter important events or moments such as weddings, funerals, holidays, birthdays, etc., these couplets are used to express congratulations or mourning.
Spring Festival couplets, also called “door pairs”, “spring stickers”, or “pairs”, is a unique form of Chinese literature. It communicates good wishes with concise and ingenious texts. Whether it be the city or in the countryside, every household would select a pair of red spring couplets to paste on the door, to bid farewell to the old and welcome the new.
Spring Festival couplets originated from Tao Fu (a rectangular peach board hanging on both sides of the gate in the Zhou Dynasty). It is generally put up before Da Nian Chu Yi, so that the New Year can be properly greeted.
3. Turn Your Lights On!
As noted, the color red, the specific dishes, and other noted customs are all part of the notion of welcoming the good and keeping away the bad. In line with such thinking, it is also custom to turn on all the lights in one’s home on New Year’s Eve.
Lights, fireworks, and any illuminated objects are seen to ‘ward off evil by shining it away with happiness.”
I still remember days when firecrackers were allowed in the city. Us kids would run around with new jackets and fluffy pants, lighting the streets up in a frenzy.
Once, my cousins and I spread fun snaps around the outside of our grandparents’ apartment. We watched from above, laughing our little heads off as neighbors jumped around at the loud crackling noise these tiny white explosives made after being stepped on.
Due to environmental concerns, fireworks and firecrackers are not allowed in big cities anymore. This is a suitable regulation, especially in consideration of China’s growing smog problems. However, I do miss the racket that would surround us on New Year’s Eve during my childhood in Xi’an.
2. Festivities And Light Shows
China is known for its extravagant light show displays. Most major cities will dazzle tons of tourists every single night. Such sights are multiplied during the New Years. In Xi’an, every street is lit up by rows and rows of lamps. Every tree is accessorized with bright red lanterns or colorful lights.
During New Year festivities, these lights are evermore present. Most downtown areas and commercial neighborhoods become home to illuminated figures, such as dragons-a mystical creature in Chinese culture that symbolizes power and good fortune.
1. The Intricacy of Handing Out The Red Pocket
Many may have witnessed or experienced the handling of red pockets, “hongbao” during Chinese New Year. These cash-filled paper pockets are often given to the younger generation by those who are older.
The color of the envelope symbolizes good fortune, positive energy, and good health. Red is also noted as a color that wards off evil. ya sui qian (press down evil)-under pillow
What isn’t usually spoken of is the intricacy of these packets. Containing a couple hundred Chinese yuan, these packets are often given in consideration of the receiver’s household.
Of course, lucky money isn’t given with the expectation of receiving something from the receiver’s family. However, when their children receive money, parents often make sure that they reciprocate by giving a similar amount to the child/children of the other party.
So when money is given, always be aware of whether the other family can reciprocate financially, because it may add an unwarranted sense of pressure! (Not applicable if you don’t have children of your own)．
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