Among China’s traditional holidays and celebrations, none ranks higher in importance than the Lunar New Year (農曆新年). Also known as the Spring Festival (春節), or simply Chinese New Year, it marks the beginning of the year according to the traditional lunar calendar.
The Lunar New Year usually starts sometime between late January and mid-February. In 2022, it falls on Feb. 1. In mainland China, official celebrations last for seven days as a public holiday.
As a scholar of Chinese religious history and culture, what fascinates me the most is how the celebrations are a reminder of the longevity and vibrancy of traditional Chinese culture.
Food, gifts and celebrations
At its core, the Lunar New Year is a celebration that brings the family together. Preparations start a week in advance and include cleaning and decorating the home, as well as shopping, especially for gifts and provisions, and food preparation.
A central event is the family dinner at the New Year’s eve. The choice of dishes varies, reflecting family customs and local culinary traditions. Often it includes dumplings, spring rolls, cakes, fish and pork dishes. There is also a fair amount of drinking, especially traditional wines or liquor. Many of the dishes are assigned symbolic meanings. For instance, dumplings are given the shape of gold ingots, to invoke good fortune.
Other customs associated with the New Year celebrations include the giving of red envelopes containing money, usually by elders to younger members of the family. The red color, which is also featured prominently in New Year decorations, symbolize prosperity and good fortune.
Traditionally, families and local communities burn firecrackers to mark the new year and ward off monsters. According to legend, the origin of the practice goes back to a story about a monster called Nian, who is believed to have been causing great harm to some villages. In response, the villagers are said to have started off explosions to scare off the monster, and the practice caught on. However, more recently the government has been cracking down on this traditional practice, on the grounds of it being dangerous and polluting.
Year of the tiger
This new year is known as the year of the tiger. In Chinese culture, the tiger is considered to be the foremost among all beasts and serves as a potent symbol of power, majesty, vigor and bravery.
According to the Chinese zodiac signs, each year in the lunar cycle is associated with a particular animal. This is a 12-year cycle that repeats itself. Thus, there are 12 animals associated with each year in the cycle. These are the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog and pig.
Among the popular myths about the origins of the Chinese zodiac, there is one about a great race initiated by the Jade Emperor, the ruler of heaven, in order to measure time. As the rat won the race, it came to be listed as first among the 12 animals of the zodiac. The order of the other 11 animals reflected their final position in the race.
Each of the 12 zodiac animals came to represent certain characteristics believed to shape the personalities of individuals born in those years. For the tiger, the positive qualities noted above can also mix with negative traits, such as a propensity to be thoughtless or overly ambitious.
Origins of the lunar calendar
Traditionally, the Chinese have followed their native lunar calendar, which is based on observations and measurements of astronomical phenomena. While modern China adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1912, traditional festivals such as the New Year still follow the old lunar calendar.
The origins of the lunar calendar may go back to the dawn of Chinese civilization, traditionally associated with the legendary Xia dynasty that ruled from 2070 to 1600 B.C. The origins of the actual New Year celebrations are also not entirely clear; some scholars believe they likely go back to the rule of the Shang dynasty from 1600 to 1050 B.C.
Religiosity and New Year’s gala
While the New Year is generally centered around the general theme of family bonding, religious observances are also an integral part of the festivities. These include domestically oriented rituals associated with popular Chinese deities, such as the Kitchen God and the God of Wealth. Family members also make offerings and engage in other rituals related to ancestor worship. Commonly, these include food offerings and the burning of incense at home altars.
During this period, many people go to Buddhist or Taoist temples, as well as other places of worship. They engage in traditional forms of piety, including offering incense and praying for good luck and fortune. Large temples tend to become very busy, with long lines of worshipers often waiting for hours in order to offer their first incense of the year.
A modern element in ushering the New Year is watching the New Year’s Gala, a popular variety show that features singing, dancing, comedy and drama. It first aired in 1983, and ever since it has been broadcast to a countrywide audience by CCTV, the national TV broadcaster. It is the most watched television program in the world, with an audience that can reach as high as a billion viewers.
Largest human migration
Over the recent decades, China has experienced drastic demographic changes, especially the migration of large rural populations into big urban centers. China’s one-child policy also brought about major changes in family structure, as most families were restricted to having only one child, which in turn made each child a center of attention and hope for the family.
This has had far-reaching effects on traditional customs and observances. Among the primary drivers of these developments are the significant changes in family structure and function. Millions of rural children are living with their grandparents or relatives, while their parents work in faraway cities.
Consequently, the Lunar New Year brings about the largest human migration in the world, as millions of students and migrant workers do their best to get back to their homes and families. During this period, trains, buses and planes are packed with travelers, and tickets must be booked well in advance.
This year’s celebrations have been impacted by travel restrictions and other strict measures imposed by the Chinese government in its efforts to control the COVID-19 pandemic. China is also hosting the Winter Olympics, which bring further restrictions to the movement of people due to a heightened emphasis on preventing incidents that might reflect negatively on China’s international image.
Celebrations outside of China
The Lunar New Year is also celebrated in other parts of Asia, including Vietnam and Singapore, as well as across the world. Usually, these celebrations have some unique features or assume local character. For instance, in Vietnam, where the festival is known as Tết, there is the preparation of various local dishes, along with the holding of parades and public performances.
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In the U.S. and Australia, where there are substantial ethnically Chinese populations in cities such as San Francisco, New York and Sydney, Chinese New Year festivals and parades are held each year. Some of them feature the traditional Dragon Dances, which highlight the communal aspect of New Year festivities.
Over the centuries, the coming together for the New Year celebration has remained an important part of the cultural heritage for Chinese families, connecting the past to the present, wherever they might happen to be.