In China the biggest festival of the year is the New Year, also called spring festival 春节chūnjié in Chinese. You may be asking why they celebrate the New Year in late January or early February and not at the beginning of January like most of the world. The reason for that is the lunar calendar.
The Lunar Calendar
Before China started to use the Gregorian calendar they had their own system, which followed the moon but even to this day China’s festivals are still celebrated according to the lunar calendar. Many people in China even celebrate their lunar birthday instead of the Gregorian calendar birth date, which can actually be found on their ID cards.
This can be confusing for people from other countries, as the lunar calendar varies from our calendar by a few weeks, hence the dates change every year.
The Chinese New Year starts on the first day of the first month of the lunar calendar, which this year is on the 31st of January. Usually it is celebrated for one week, but as most people will go to their hometown, they will usually stay away for two weeks, sometimes even longer. This leads to a mass of people travelling through the whole country with crowded trains, buses and planes. The ticket prices rise tremendously just before and after this period so it is not advised to go on a journey at that time. However during the first few days of the actually holiday period tickets are very cheap and it’s not as busy as everybody is already home with their families.
Customs and Traditions
Just before the holiday you will see people buying new clothes and getting new haircuts. Everybody wants to look good for the New Year. As red is the lucky colour, the people who were born in the year of the same zodiac animal, will buy red underwear and wear it on the first day of the New Year.
People will also clean their homes and put red banners with 春联chūnlián, couplets, at their front doors wishing for good luck and a prosperous new year. They are put up vertically one on the left, one on the right and one horizontally on the top of the door
There are many other decorations as well, usually red lanterns, paper cuts or posters of the character 福fú meaning ‘good fortune’ and the zodiac animal of the year. You can often see the picture of fú hanging upside down, so that the luck will pour down on you.
Another traditional decoration is fish, the reason for this is the saying 年年有余，天天有鱼 niánnián yǒu yú, tiāntiān yǒu yú, which translates into ‘Have abundance year after year, have fish every day’. As the words for abundance and fish have the same sound (yú), Chinese people use fish as a symbol for abundance. That is also why Chinese will have fish in every New Year’s meal.
There is one red thing everyone anticipates, it’s the red envelope 红包 hóngbāo. It’s the typical New Year present filled with money from family or close family friends and is usually given to the children. Most companies will also give out a New Year’s bonus in a hóngbāo to their employees.
Family is the most important during the Chinese New Year. As many people work in a different place than their hometown for most people it’s the only chance in the year when the whole family will get together. During the holiday there will be plenty of lunches and dinners with family, extended family, friends and neighbours. It’s a very lively time and the atmosphere is bustling with excitement.
Of course you cannot miss out on the firecrackers and fireworks, that is what the Chinese invented gunpowder for (not for guns ;-P). The noise of the exploding crackers is supposed to drive evil and ghosts away, so that there will be a happy and peaceful start into the New Year.
After filling their stomachs and letting off a huge amount of firecrackers most families will spend a calm New Year’s eve in front of the TV watching the New Year’s Gala 春节联欢晚会chūnjié liánhuān wǎnhuì, a four hour or longer programme with singing, dancing, comedy and magical performances from the different ethnic groups all over the country.
Before the actual holiday many Chinese New Year events and parties will take place, just like companies in western countries will have their Christmas party. There you can also see traditional performances such as the dragon dance.
Do you want to experience a Chinese New Year celebration yourself? Apply for an internship and do a homestay to have an authentic Chinese New Year with a Chinese family!