Updated January 2020
Have you finally used all the leftovers from your holiday parties? Have you finally gotten “Jingle Bells” out of your head? Many of us are cleaning up after our family visits and parties. But for China and other Asian cultures around the world, people are just getting started for the biggest celebration in the lunar calendar. If you are wondering to yourself ‘When is Chinese New Year?’ ‘How do you celebrate it?’ or ‘What are the traditions?’ then this article is for you.
Chinese Lunar Calendar
Because of the lunar calendar, it can be difficult to remember when is Chinese New Year because the actual date changes from year to year. “The first day of Chinese New Year begins on the new moon that appears between 21 January and 20 February.”¹ This year, it starts on January 25th and continues until February 8th. Chinese schools plan for winter holidays to begin a few weeks before the festivities, so students have about one month off from regular classes.
Chinese New Year AKA Spring Festival
Chinese New Year is commonly known as Spring Festival in China or Lunar New Year in other parts of the world. Vietnam, South Korea, and Singapore celebrate this holiday, as well as Chinese communities living in different countries. To wish someone “Happy New Year!” you can say 新年快乐 (xīn nián kuài lè) in Mandarin Chinese. Another way to greet people during Spring Festival is to say, 恭喜发财 (gōng xǐ fā cái). This is an expression for good health and prosperity.
This festival is the largest and most important holiday for many Chinese people. Leading up to Lunar New Year, they clean, buy new clothes and decorate their houses in as much red as possible for good luck. Families usually travel to see each other, which has made this travel period known as the biggest annual human migration.
You might be thinking, “Wait, wasn’t that during Golden Week in October?” Let’s compare: In October, 726 million trips were taken during that week in 2018. But last year, officials anticipated nearly 3 billion trips would be taken during Spring Festival, the most by car and rail.
Each day of the Lunar New Year has a special custom, but the first five days are traditionally spent with family. After that, people wait until the Lantern Festival at the end of the holiday to celebrate again before life returns to normal. The Lantern Festival celebrates the first full moon of the new year and families usually spend time together outside.
Traditions during the Lantern Festival include lighting and releasing lanterns into the sky and solving lantern riddles. The lanterns can come in many different shapes and sizes, such as dragons, flowers, or fish. During the day, people will watch the lion dance, which is supposed to ward off bad luck. Two dancers operate a lion suit while dancing and doing some acrobatics to the beat of a drum or cymbals. A common food eaten during the Lantern Festival is sweet glutinous rice balls which are filled with sugar, peanuts or bean paste.
Year of the Rat
If you have ever eaten at a Chinese restaurant, you have probably seen the placemat with the 12 animals representing the Chinese zodiac. Each of these animals has different characteristics and personalities attributed to them. Traditionally, these zodiac symbols have been used to understand life events and make decisions in a person’s career, health, relationships and more.
2020 is the Year of the Rat. People born in 1924, 1936, 1948, 1960, 1972, 1984, 1996, and 2008 are also rats. Don’t take that as an insult! In Chinese culture, this animal is a symbol of strong vitality, intelligence and spirit. According to The Chinese Zodiac, “The Rat is the first sign from the 12 animals cycle of the Chinese Astrology, and for this reason, 2020 is considered a year of new beginnings and renewals.”
When your zodiac sign matches the year, it is your least lucky year in a 12-year cycle. That means that people born in the Year of the Rat should be careful, as there will be more ups and downs compared to other years. However, if you were born under a different Chinese Zodiac sign, this year is predicted to be a lucky and prosperous one.
Chinese New Year’s Eve
On January 24th this year, families will gather together to celebrate Chinese New Year’s Eve. Like January 1st celebrations, there is a televised program to countdown the new year. The Spring Festival Gala includes comedy acts, popular bands, and performances that highlight the ethnic groups in China. People stay awake until midnight and shoot off fireworks when the new year begins. However, due to pollution concerns, personal fireworks are no longer allowed in many big cities.
Family reunion dinner
On Chinese New Year’s Eve, people have a large feast. A common Chinese New Year tradition is to eat dumplings. This is because the word for “dumpling” sounds similar to the word for “exchange” and “midnight.” So, by eating dumplings, you are exchanging the old year for the new.
Various regions of China have different foods they consider good luck. These foods are must-haves around the dinner table during Lunar New Year. These include spring rolls in southern China, steamed fish with red peppers in Hunan and chicken soup in Hubei.
After the feast, children receive their red envelopes with money from their parents and grandparents. Depending on the generosity and means of the family, children can get quite a bit of money to start off the new year! People also give red envelopes to their parents and other close family members.
Red is a symbol of good luck, energy, and happiness, which is why it so prevalent during Lunar New Year. Because the money is wrapped in the red paper, it becomes lucky money for the new year. It is also seen as a way to pass along good fortune and blessings.
Although red envelopes are usually given to family, it is also common to give small amounts to co-workers or other acquaintances. It’s also important to use crisp new bills in the envelopes. With modern technology, social media has become a new place to send and receive money during Spring Festival and other holidays.
Celebrations Around the World
Nowadays, Chinese New Year is celebrated around the world. Many major cities have Asian or Chinese cultural associations, which often put on events to share this festival with everyone in the community. You might try delicious foods, watch lion dances or see fireworks. If you go, share your experience in the comments below!
Delanie Honda has a Bachelor’s degree in English Literature and a Master’s degree in International Education Policy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. While in Cambodia in 2014, she discovered she had a passion for helping students around the world achieve their academic, professional, and personal goals through language learning. During her Master’s studies, she researched interventions using technology to provide quality education to students around the world. She has been a tutor with ALO7 since April 2017 and lived in Southeast Asia, Ecuador and Colombia.
The digital nomad lifestyle has allowed her to pursue the two things she loves: travel and education. As a Chinese-Japanese American, Delanie is asked, “Where are you from?” a lot, but welcomes the opportunity to share her culture with the people she meets from around the world. Her favorite things to do while traveling are trying new foods, playing Ultimate Frisbee, and exploring on foot.