Chinese New Year: A Tradition of Joy

Chinese New Year is the most important date in the Chinese calendar. Unlike Western culture, Chinese culture calculates the beginning of the year at what is called the “Spring Festival,” even though the holiday occurs in winter. Chinese New Year extends between the first day of the first month of the Chinese calendar, and extends to the Lantern Festival, on the 15th day.

(In terms of Chinese astrology, brash, intrepid Tiger gives way to charming, tasteful Rabbit, ushering in a kinder, gentler Chinese New Year, before the auspicious Year of the Dragon in 2012.)

Chinese New Year is traditionally celebrated with the family, and is a chance to connect deeply. Red is the most prominent color in celebrations of the holiday—meant to represent fire, which burns off bad luck, as well as representing happiness. The season is awash with red traditional clothing, red paper lanterns hung for decoration, and red money envelopes for children.

At the beginning of Chinese New Year, the Kitchen God Zaowang is celebrated as the guardian of the family kitchen, who is in charge of the family and who is the emissary sent from heaven to keep track of good and bad deeds in the family (much like Santa Claus, in some ways). Accordingly, it’s particularly important that Zaowang is kept happy, in this case with offerings of Nian Gao, a sticky cake similar to lotus root. Not only does this candy keep Zaowang happy, it’s also meant to glue his mouth shut so that he can’t report the bad deeds of the family!

Guests are also welcomed to the home with Cheun Hup, a tray of dumplings—one of which sometimes contains a hidden coin. Whoever ends up with the coin is meant to be gifted with tremendous good luck for the coming New Year.

During the time of Chinese New Year, great amounts of good luck arrive for the family household, luck which is meant to carry over to the coming year. As such, great pains are taken to make sure that nothing is done during this time to disrupt the incoming flow of blessings and good fortune (Fook).

Children (and singles) are also given red envelopes filled with good luck money during this time by married couples, and fireworks and firecrackers are lit off to frighten away any incoming bad spirits or bad luck. (Unfortunately, fireworks and firecrackers have now been banned in many Asian countries after concerns over public safety. Most Chinatowns in the United States, however, have had the ban on fireworks and firecrackers lifted at this time, including in Chinese communities in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco.) Small gifts are also exchanged between people at this time.

Chinese New Year comes to an end with the Festival of Lanterns, or Shang Yuan Festival—on this night, children go out into the streets carrying lit paper lanterns in order to crown the year’s good luck. The Festival of Lanterns is one of the most enduring and best-known symbols of Chinese culture.

Mythology has it that Chinese New Year began with a fight against the Nian, an aquatic lion that lives underwater and emerges to terrorize the populace. After multiple attacks, villagers came up with a way to fight back: by loudly banging drums, lighting off firecrackers, and wearing bright red, all to startle and confuse the Nian. This apparently scared away the Nian, who vanished into the mountains and is considered to have died long ago. Yet from this legend come the customs of Chinese New Year.

Do you celebrate Chinese New Year, or have you visited anywhere that does?

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