This year’s Chinese New Year celebration starts on February 19 and lasts until March 5 but preparations for China’s biggest holiday began two weeks ago on the first. Also known as Spring Festival, this is the busiest travel time and the longest public holiday in China—most workers have a full week off. According to Fox News, the Chinese government expects as many as 2.8 billion trips will be made this year.
Chinese New Year celebrations are celebrated all over the world, wherever there’s a significant Chinese population. In the U.S., San Francisco’s parade and festival is one of the biggest outside of China and has even grown to include a Miss Chinatown pageant. The holiday is based on the lunisolar Chinese calendar, which dates as far back as 14th century B.C. during the Shang Dynasty. Most of the traditions surrounding the Spring Festival have to do with honoring home and family while warding off evil spirits and ensuring good luck for the coming year. In honor of 2015, the year of the goat, here are 10 fascinating facts about the history of the Chinese New Year Celebration.
1. Lunisolar Calendar Like the Gregorian calendar, the Chinese lunisolar calendar is divided into 12 months but they are based on phases of the moon while the years are based on the sun. This calendar is divided into 60-year cycles, which are subdivided into 12-year cycles based on the Chinese zodiac. Like ours, it has 12 signs but they change annually rather than monthly. The Chinese New Year falls on the second new moon after the winter solstice, so the date is different every year. Since 1912, when the Western calendar was adopted in China, they have begun celebrating New Year’s Day on January 1 and calling this month’s holiday Spring Festival.
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2. Year of the Wood Goat The Chinese zodiac is comprised of 12 animals and five elements (metal, water, wood, fire and earth). This year’s element is wood and the sign is the goat or sheep, which symbolize creativity, peace and nurturing. The goat is the eighth sign of the zodiac, making it especially lucky as the number eight in China is equivalent to the number seven in the West.
3. The Legend of Nian New Year in Chinese in Xin Nian. Nian (or Year) was a ferocious monster with the body of a bull and the head of a lion. As food became scarce during the winter, Nian would come into the villages and eat the residents. Over time they learned that Nian was afraid of the color red, fire and noise, which have all become part of the Chinese New Year celebration.
4. New Year Prep The Spring Festival is all about fresh starts and good luck so there are many superstitions surrounding it. Before the New Year people clean their homes, get makeovers and pay off debts. On the actual day, cleaning and hair washing are considered bad luck because they could wash away good fortune.
5. Reunion Dinner On New Year’s Eve is customary to have a lavish family dinner with a variety of symbolic foods. Many Chinese traditions and superstitions are based on homonyms so words that sound alike but have different meanings are merged. For instance, fish is always eaten on New Year’s eve because it sounds similar to ‘abundance’ in Chinese. Fish and chicken are served whole to represent unity, there are often eight courses and part of the fish is saved as leftovers to reinforce the idea of surplus or abundance.
6. Red Packets Chinese New Year’s celebrations include exchanging gifts and Red Packets—little red envelopes usually containing money. Red is a lucky color and the money symbolizes prosperity for coming year. Gifts range from modest to extravagant depending on the giver’s income. Corporate gifts have become quite lavish—think Birkin bags and Louis Vuitton wallets—but this year founder and managing director of the China Market Research Group, Shaun Rein told CNBC, “Corporates, for example, used to buy luxury products to give their high performing employees, now they are giving iPhones because they more reasonably priced and still considered premium enough.” Are you listening American bosses?
7. Fireworks The Chinese are said to have invented fireworks and at midnight on New Year’s Eve it’s traditional to launch brilliant and loud fireworks displays. This year, however, many Chinese cities are restricting or banning fireworks because of pollution and safety issues.
8. The Lantern Festival The Lantern Festival dates back 2,000 years and is celebrated on the fifteenth day (and first full moon) of the first month in the Chinese calendar. This year it falls on March 5. Traditions vary in different regions but most include lighting lanterns and setting off fireworks.
9. Lion & Dragon Dances These traditional dances are probably the most exciting and recognizable images of Chinese New Year celebrations. The Dragon Dance is performed by several people supporting a dragon made of bamboo and cloth that often spews smoke from its mouth. Dragons aren’t scary creatures in Chinese tradition, but represent dignity, wisdom and sovereignty. The Dragon Dance began as a rain dance and on New Year’s its performed to scare away evil spirits. The Lion Dance is similar, but the lion is more like a costume worn by two people. He brings good luck and searches for leafy greens to eat as he dances from place to place.
10. The Birthday of the Dog! The 2nd day of the New Year is the Birthday of the Dog and a happy day for pets and strays who are pampered and fed well.