The Chinese New Year is the most important date in the Chinese calendar and this 25th January will mark the start of the 4718th Year. As it is based on the Lunar Calendar, New Year can fall on different dates each year, but normally is between 21st Jan and 20th Feb.
Most people already know that the Chinese calendar follows a system in which each year is associated with a different animal, one of 12 in the cycle. What you may not know is every year is also associated with an element. This means that the year 2020 is the year of the Rat, and follows the year of the Pig in 2019. People born in the year of each element and animal are associated with their own characteristics ranging from personality to career prospects.
There are many traditions associated with CNY, some centuries old, some new and then some perfectly mixing old with new to make the festival one of the most special around the world.
A Family Affair
The New Year is all about family. A big homemade meal is a must, typically served with dishes including pork, dumplings and steamed fish, mainly in the South.
As with most Chinese traditions the steamed fish has an interesting story too, preferred because the Chinese word for fish being similar to the words for ‘profit’ and ‘surplus’. The hope is that eating lots of steamed fish will mean a lot of good fortune in the year to come. In contrast, pork features prominently in northern dishes. Minced pork is used as a dumpling filling along with sugar, peanuts and dates signifying prosperity.
Getting In The Festive Spirit
Preparations for the festival begin well in advance. Leading up to the day windows and doors are decorated with posters with characters or phrases and lanterns start lining the streets. Chinese knots, potted kumquats and golden orange trees all add to the atmosphere.
All Red Everything
If the New Year had a main colour then it is indisputably Red. Walking around red is everywhere from decoration lanterns and dragons to special festival clothing and even in food the colour is omnipresent. Once again the reason is that red symbolises good luck and joy for the year ahead and who doesn’t want that?
There’s that red again! Known as hongbao in Mandarin and lai see in Cantonese, one of the most popular and time old traditions involves cash gifts, known as “lucky money” and written wishes, given by senior family members to the younger members in little red envelopes. The amounts can range vastly, even more reason for the younger ones to be good for the year.
In recent years the tradition has gone all 21st century and there are even apps that let you send virtual red packets over the web to your loved ones with their New Year gifts.
Fireworks during celebrations are a staple all around the world, but for the Chinese New Year there’s a special reason. It’s believed that the loud bangs will scare away evil spirits, so they are often enjoyed extra loud. Although nowadays certain fireworks are banned in many cities for safety and noise reasons, people still find ways to keep the traditions alive.
Lion and Dragon Dances
There’s never a shortage of street parades and performances during CNY and the Lion and Dragon dances are always a favourite.
All Squeaky Clean
More than just your average tidy up, the special New Year clean is symbolic as sweeping away the bad luck of the past year. Similarly families avoid cleaning on New Year’s Day fearing that good fortune will be swept away as well.
Celebrating Our Way
China is a massive country and traditions can differ greatly from place to place. This can be from NY decorations and food to clothing and games. While in northern China, dumplings are preferred for CNY, the curved shape symbolising a traditional gold pot, in the south niangao, a chewy pellet made from glutinous rice is the winner along with tangyuan, a rice ball dessert with a sweet sesame filling.
Praying at the Temple
Many choose to welcome the New Year with a visit to the temple. Whilst there, along with praying for a good year ahead and lighting incense sticks, they might also bring offerings of food and set off firecrackers. This is followed by enjoying the many dance performances temples put on.