Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) Celebration

When I went to the Chinese grocery store a couple of weeks ago and saw the New Year’s candy platters, it dawned on me that the Chinese New Year is getting closer. I was too busy to check the lunar calendars. When I came home and looked at the calendar, I saw that Chinese New Year is on February 10 this year.

What is Chinese New Year?

Chinese New Year, called Spring Festival in China, is determined by cycles of the moon, and it is in late January or in February of the western calendar. You will also hear people say Lunar New Year, because it is not only Chinese who celebrate New Year on this day; some other Asian countries celebrate it too.  On the calendars used in China, and the Chinese communities around the world, you will see that under a date of the western calendar, there is another number.

Lunar Calendar

Lunar Calendar

That is the date of the lunar calendar. People often ask me, “What calendar do the Chinese use?” They use the western calendar. The lunar calendar is used for traditional Chinese holidays, and some farmers use it as a guide for farming. There are 12 Chinese Zodiac signs. 2013 is the Year of Snake.

Chinese New Year is the most important holiday in China. It is really a big thing in China. It is the time to get together with your family, to visit your relatives, to remember your ancestors. You can feel the holiday atmosphere everywhere, in the city as well as the faraway villages. There are fireworks, dragon dances, lion dances, New Year’s decorations, good foods, and gifts. In the Chinese communities (Chinatown) around the world, there are also celebrations. Especially this year, because New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day are both on the weekends. It is the best for the Chinese living abroad who are off from work on the weekend.

Lion Dance, Lunar New Year Celebration at Chinese Community Center, Houston, 2011

Lion Dance, Lunar New Year Celebration at Chinese Community Center, Houston, 2011

Prepare for Chinese New Year

In China, people start to prepare for the Chinese New Year celebration several weeks before it starts and continue right up until it starts. In the city, people start shopping for some traditional Chinese food like smoked sausage, smoked meat, dried chicken and/or duck as well as fresh meat and seafood. They also store some traditional fruits like oranges and apples. In the villages, people kill their own pigs, sheep, chickens, and ducks to prepare for the holiday food in their own way. People everywhere shop for gifts for their family.

About two or three weeks before the Chinese New Year, people start to make their trip back home. College students go home to see their parents, and migrant workers go home after one year’s hard work to get together with their parents and their children whom they might not have seen for a whole year. Everybody is trying to get to where “home” is.

Red is the color of good luck in the Chinese culture. Businesses, companies, and schools hang up red lanterns several weeks before the new year. A couple days before the New Year, people decorate their front door and their living room. On the door, they put poetic couplets of good wishes written on red paper.  In the living room, they might put some traditional New Year’s pictures or paintings on the walls, little decorations on the tables, and varieties of snacks on the dining table and coffee table. China is so large, and people in different areas have different snacks and foods. The most popular snacks are candies, nuts, dried fruits, sunflower seeds, and melon seeds. People also like to have fresh oranges and tangerines, which symbolize abundance and wealth, and fresh apples, which symbolize peace.

New Year’s Eve

New Year’s Eve dinner is the big family dinner. Traditionally, people would get together in their parents’ home. Nowadays, just like the Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner here in America, people may choose one of the family members’ homes to get together for the dinner. Or, some people choose to have the family dinner in a restaurant. Restaurants have all kinds of New Year’s dinner menu items for you to choose from.

As I mentioned earlier, people in different areas in China have their own different cuisines. But no matter where they are, they eat a lot of good food. Traditionally, among the delicious dishes people have is a fish dish. In Chinese, “Fish” (yú) sounds exactly the same as “extra, more than enough” (yu). Therefore, fish symbolizes abundance (always having extra money, extra food, etc.). In the north, people have dumplings. The shape of dumplings resembles the ancient Chinese gold or silver ingots, so it is a wish of a prosperous new year.

Chinese New Years Dumplings
“Chinese New Years Dumplings”, by “sheilaz413″, on Flickr

Besides food, family members give red envelopes with money to children and their parents and grandparents. For example, I would give red envelopes to my child, nieces, nephews and my parents. If my uncle and aunts were having dinner with us, I would prepare one for them as well. That is the happiest time for the kids, just like here on Christmas morning when the family unwraps their gifts.

After dinner, people entertain themselves by watching the celebration shows on TV, playing Majiang or cards, or singing Karaoke. Some family members who haven’t seen each other for a long time may just chat. It is a very enjoyable family time!

At midnight, people set off fireworks to send out the old year and welcome in the new year. It is the best time for kids. When I was little, I didn’t have the guts to pop any fireworks because I was afraid I would get hurt. But I enjoyed watching it. Most of the fireworks sold around the world are made in China. For this most important holiday in China, it is not hard to imagine how many fireworks they pop. However, city residents are not allowed to pop fireworks because of the dense population. In towns and villages, people enjoy their fireworks.

After the fireworks, most people go to bed. My mom used to tell me and my siblings to go to bed after fireworks. Parents remind their kids at this time what they should not say or do when they wake up on New Year’s Day. There are some unlucky words and phrases. For example: “four” shares the same pronunciation as “death”.   “I can’t eat any more” indicates “I am about to die.” Such things my mom reminded me again and again. But as a kid, I was too excited about the lucky money I would receive from my family, the new clothes I would wear the next day. A lot of times I forgot what my mom told me. Then when I did say unlucky things, my mom would give me that look to remind me. It is not good to cry on New Year’s Day, either. They say, “If you cry on New Year’s Day, you will cry the whole year.”

New Year’s Day

People in different areas have their own custom for New Year’s Day breakfast. In the North, people like to have dumplings. In the southwest area where I grew up, people have sticky rice balls with sweet stuffing inside.

Rice Balls - Chinese lantern festival
“Rice Balls – Chinese lantern festival” by “willy-photographer” on Flickr

It symbolizes that everything will go smoothly in the new year, rolling like a ball, no obstacles. Some people also have noodles symbolizing long life. For children, their mind is not on breakfast. When I was little, my attention was on my clothes and my hairstyle, and I knew my mom wouldn’t force me to eat. Remember, crying and saying “I don’t want to eat” are considered unlucky.

The first thing people say to each other on New Year’s Day is “Gong Xi Fa Cai” (Congratulations and Prosperity) and/or “Xin Nian Kuai Le” (Happy New Year). Adults always prepare some red envelopes and new cash for New Year’s morning. When your neighbors’ kids see you and say “Gong Xi Fa Cai” to you, you are supposed to give them some lucky money in the red envelope. My mom said I was a cute little girl and always got a good amount of lucky money from our neighbors and family friends.

There are all kinds of celebrations on New Year’s day in parks, community centers, and temples. There are traditional dragon dances, lion dances, other performances, traditional hand-made souvenirs, and a variety of food.

On New Year’s day, or on the second day, people also go to the graveyard to visit their ancestors. In front of the tomb, they put a couple of plates with meat, fruits, and candy. They light incense, burn paper money, and set off firecrackers. The family kneels down to bow to the ancestors.

During the next few days, people visit their extended families and friends. Some people just play cards or Majiang with family and friends. There is no school and no work. People just enjoy themselves.

Lantern Festival

Lantern Festival, also called Yuanxiao Festival, is on the fifteenth day of the first lunar month. On New Year’s Day, a new moon starts, and on the 15th night you will see a full moon, the first full moon of the year. Thousands of lanterns are hung out for decoration and for people to solve the puzzles on the lanterns. The traditional food people eat is rice ball (yuan xiao).

Lantern Festival, Nanjing
“Lantern Festival, Nanjing” by “RiffRaff” on Flickr

Usually Lantern Festival marks the end of the holiday. People go back to work, and students start the spring semester in school.

If you have ever celebrated Spring Festival (Chinese New Year), or plan to in the future,  please leave a comment to tell us about it.  

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