Chinese New Year 中国新年 (zhōng guó xīn nián), commonly called Lunar New Year and Spring Festival, is rich in symbolism and tradition stemming from folklore. The date of Chinese New Year differs from year to year according to the Chinese lunar calendar. This year we celebrate Chinese New Year on Friday, 12th February 2021. On this date, we welcome in the Year of the Ox.
Often called The Spring Festival, as it falls around the same time as the start of Spring, the holiday is traditionally celebrated for 15 days and begins on the first new moon of the year. The New Year celebrations continue for 15 days as the moon grows full, ending with the Lantern Festival on the 15th day.
Many modern-day Chinese New Year customs trace back to a mythological beast known as the Nian, or Winter Monster. Legends say the Nian lived in the mountains and by the end of winter, having no food to eat it would descend on the towns and eat the livestock and villagers and particularly liked eating children.
The villagers discovered the Nian feared fire, the colour red and loud noises. Dreading the return of the Nian each year, the villagers hung red lanterns in their windows and doorways, made loud noises by beating drums and left offerings of food in front of their home so the Nian would not enter. Eventually, a Taoist Monk captured the Nian. From then on it became customary to celebrate the Nian’s capture and banishment by hanging red lanterns, setting off firecrackers and fireworks and enjoying an abundance of food with family.
These days, no matter where they are in the world, family members are expected to return home to celebrate Chinese New Year with their families. As a result, Chinese New Year travel, known as Chunyun 春运, is the largest annual human migration on earth. Millions of people from all over China, and the world, take holidays and travel home to spend time with family.
To prepare for Chinese New Year people buy new clothes, shop for presents to give their family and cook for the impending celebration. It is customary to clean homes, businesses and roads, sweeping away any bad luck to start afresh in the New Year.
Each year red lanterns are hung in the streets, from trees, in public buildings and out the front of homes. Red is the most dominant colour used for decorating as it is considered especially lucky. Gold is also prominent and is said to bring wealth.
It is common to see red banners called ‘couplets’ pasted on the front door of homes and apartments. Traditionally these Couplets were hand-painted with characters to wish people a prosperous New Year and to welcome the New Year into the house through the front door. Nowadays, most people buy the couplets with the messages already printed. As it is the Year of the Ox, pictures of the ox will feature prominently on many of the decorations.
On New Year’s Eve, families gather together for the ‘Reunion Dinner’ 团年饭 (Tuán Nián Fàn)or ‘New Year Dinner’ 年夜饭 (nián yè fàn), considered the most important meal of the year. The types of food eaten at the reunion dinner, and throughout the festival, are also very symbolic.
A whole steamed fish 蒸鱼 (zhēng yú) symbolises surplus and wealth because the Chinese word for fish, yu, sounds the same as the word for ‘surplus’. Noodles 长面 (cháng miàn) symbolise longevity. And if you’ve ever wondered why a Spring Roll 春卷 (chūn juǎn) is called a Spring Roll, they are traditionally eaten on the first day of Spring to celebrate its arrival and are especially popular in Eastern China.
Dumplings 饺子 (jiǎo zi) are another food served at reunion dinner. The name for dumplings, jiǎo also sounds like the word ‘exchange’ therefore dumplings symbolise the exchange between the old and new year. A whole steamed chicken 蒸鸡 (zhēng jī) represents reunion and rebirth.
Nian Gao 年糕 (nián gāo), rice cakes or New Years Cakes, are available every day of the year but are considered a lucky food and are especially eaten on New Year’s Eve to improve your business, studies and life in general. Hot Pot 火锅 (huǒ guō) is also commonly eaten for the new year meal, a relatively simple dish of raw meats and vegetables you cook yourself in a boiling broth placed in the centre of the table.
After dinner, families play games and watch the New Year Gala TV special. To welcome in the new year, it is tradition to throw open all the doors and windows at midnight while making a lot of noise beating drums, setting off firecrackers and fireworks to scare away the evil spirits. (Note: Fireworks have been banned in Shanghai since January 2016 due to air pollution concerns)
On the first day of the New Year, it is customary to honour the oldest family members by visiting them and showing your respect.Hongbao 红包 (hóng bāo) (red envelope/packet), are a popular gift given out at Chinese New Year, as well as for weddings, birthdays and other special occasions. It is customary for older family members and friends to give Hongbao to children and younger family members. It is also common for employers to gift their employees Hongbao.
Traditionally Hongbao was given in red envelopes and is still the most common practice; however, in recent years, it has also become common for younger people to share red packets within WeChat. When gifting Hongbao, generally a bank trip is required as the Hongbao should contain new banknotes, as giving old banknotes is considered bad manners.
The amount gifted in a Hongbao depends on several factors; how close the family member/friend is, your position at work and how important you feel the colleague/employee is. Denominations with the number eight are preferable as eight is considered a lucky number. Never give an amount containing the number four. The number four in Chinese 四 (sì) is similar to 死 (sǐ), which means death.
The Lantern Festival 元宵节 (Yuán xiāo jié) marks the final day of the Chinese New Year celebration and falls on the 15th day of the New Year when the moon is full. In 2021 the Lantern Festival is celebrated on Friday, 26th February. Lantern Festival is also a time to spend time with family and friends, eat tāng yuán 汤圆 chewy glutinous rice balls in soup. It is also common to see lion dances and dragon dances during the Lantern Festival.
Each year in Shanghai, thousands of people visit the old town at Yuyuan Gardens 豫园during the Lantern Festival to see the lantern display and visit The City God Temple 城隍庙 (chéng huáng miào). We visited the lantern display our first year in Shanghai, and it was a crowded experience, so we generally don’t visit Yuyuan Garden at this time of year.
Like so many other events and occasions over the last twelve months, Chinese New Year in 2021 will look very different. For loved ones unable to travel due to international travel bans and local restrictions, the usual in-person gatherings will now go online. Quiet dinners at home with immediate family will replace big family gatherings at restaurants, and public events are being scaled back or even cancelled in some cases.
As we prepare to enter the Year of the Ox, we should take a leaf from our Ox friends and channel their tenacity to be strong and persevere through these difficult times. However you choose to celebrate, I wish you health and happiness for the New Year.
Xīn nián kuài lè 新年快乐– Happy New Year!
Sarah Krasicki moved to Shanghai with her family in 2016 and enjoys blogging about living and travelling in China. Follow her adventures at www.adventuringwego.com.