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Chinese New Year Traditions, Date, Animals, Celebration, and Decorations

Chinese New Year Lanterns
Chinese New Year

What Is the Chinese New Year or Spring Festival?

 

Chinese New Year, also named Spring Festival or Chunjie, is the biggest festival in China that is related to the worshiping of ancestors and heaven, and reunion with family.

 

It usually requires at least a week's preparation and lasts for half a month. 

 

Everything included during this period, decorations, flowers, chores, food, etiquette, celebrating activities, etc., formed the Spring Festival or Chinese New Year culture.

Chinese New Year Flowers the Plum Blossoms
Date

Chinese New Year Calendar and Date

 

New Year is the end of frigid winter, the beginning of the new year, and the hopeful spring. 

 

Since the year 104 BC, with the approval of Emperor Wudi, the Chinese New Year has been celebrated on the 1st of January in the Chinese Traditional Calendar

 

Besides, the Chinese Traditional Calendar is a Lunisolar Calendar that is different from the Gregorian Calendar. 

 

Therefore, the date of each year's Spring Festival is varied when they are transformed into Gregorian Calendar, usually somewhere between the 21st of January to the 21st of February. 

The 2023 Chinese New Year is on the 22nd of January.

Zodiac Sign

Chinese New Year Animals

 

No later than the Shang Dynasty (1600 BC — 1046 BC), the Heavenly Stems and Earthly Branches System, also known as Sexagenary Cycle has been used as ordinal numbers to mark time.

Centuries later, 12 zodiac signs were formed and used to represent the 12 Earthly Branches or Terrestrial Branches, which were later assigned to mark years.  

The 12 Chinese New Year Animals in order are Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig.

Moreover, since the dates of the Spring Festival varied in the Gregorian Calendar, each year's zodiac sign starts on different dates too.

 

Click to Check Chinese Zodiac Signs for Each Year

12 Zodiac Animal Signs on Bronze Mirror of the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907)

12 Zodiac Animal Signs on Bronze Mirror of the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907) — Luoyang Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying) 

Purpose

Why Is the Chinese New Year Celebrated?

 

Throughout thousands of years of history, reasons for celebrating Chinese New Year have been:

 

  • To worship heaven, deities, and ancestors, and to pray for blessings for the new year;

  • To disperse the frigidness of winter and evil monsters (especially the one named "Nian");

  • To celebrate the agricultural harvest of the previous year;

  • To welcome hopeful spring;

  • To reunite and enjoy feasts with family.

Chinese New Year decorations
Custom

Chinese New Year Traditions: Preparations, Schedule, Celebrations, and Customs

 

In the Chinese Traditional Calendar:

Preparation Works

23rd (in northern China) or 24th (in southern China) of Dec.: 

  • To worship Kitchen God (Zao Wang Ye), and eat malt sugar candy (Tang Gua).

It is believed that every family has a Kitchen God that is guarding their house, who will go back to heaven on that day and report everything that happened in this family in the past year. 

Beautiful firecrackers are used to see off all Kitchen Gods, and malt sugar candies are offered to make them feel sticky and sweet so that they won't say any bad things about the family.

Malt Sugar Candy or Tanggua, the traditional food of Chinese New Year.

Malt Sugar Candy or Tanggua, the traditional food of Chinese New Year.

24th or 25th of Dec.:

  • To clean the entire house, and set up auspicious decorations.

25th to 29th of Dec.:

  • Shopping for new clothes, cooking or buying food for the holidays, getting haircuts, and so on. 

 

Celebration and Custom

30th of Dec. the Eve of the Chinese New Year:

  • Paste couplets and door gods;

  • Worship ancestors;

  • Prepare and eat a feast dinner with family;

  • Welcome the Kitchen God back;

  • Make dumplings for the next few days;

  • Watch Spring Festival Gala (or Chun Wan) on TV;

  • Stay up late till midnight (some places stay awake the whole night) to welcome the new year;​

  • Set firecrackers (nowadays not allowed in many places in China because of the environment);

  • Hand out money (Yasuiqian) in red envelopes to kids.

Yasuiqian in red envelopes given to children in Chinese New Year

1st of Jan.:

  • Worship heaven and ancestors;

  • Visit and pray at temples for religious people;

  • Wear new clothes and visit important relatives (usually the father's parents, or the man's parents for married couples);

  • Send new year's greetings to family and friends;

  • Eat Dumplings in northern China, or Sticky Rice Cake (Nian Gao) or Glutinous Rice Balls (Tangyuan) in the south;

  • Set firecrackers.

Firecrackers in the Spring Festival, the Chinese New Year

2nd of Jan.:

  • Visit mother's parents or woman’s parents for married couples;

  • Hand out gifts, like candy or dessert, or money in red envelopes to kids;

  • Eat noodles, dumplings, and feast with family;

  • In some southern places in China, eat the Opening Spring Festival Banquet (Kainianfan) which includes certain types of auspicious dishes.

 

3rd and 4th of Jan.:

  • Visit other relatives and friends, and have a feast with them.

5th of Jan.:

  • Welcome and worship the God of Wealth;

  • Sweep the floor and throw out the trash to send away the God of Poverty;

  • Set firecrackers and eat dumplings;

  • Open up markets;

  • In some places of southern China, bosses would hand out Give Money (Lishi) in red envelopes to employees.

Picture of God of Wealth in Chinese Culture

Picture of God of Wealth in Chinese Culture

6th to 12th of Jan.:

  • Hold worship ceremonies for different deities in different places and religions;

  • Attend Temple Fairs;

  • Visit performances like Dragon and Lion Dances;

  • Reunite with old friends;

  • Participate in different, local celebrations;

  • Many people would go back to work nowadays.

 

13th to 14th of Jan.:

Lantern Festival, the End of Chinese New Year Celebration
Taboo

What People Usually Don't Do during Chinese New Year?

 

  • Do not say unlucky words during New Year, such as "death", "over", "ghost"etc.;

  • Do not sweep the floor, do laundry, or throw out garbage from the 1st to the 4th of Jan.;

  • Do not use the knife, needle, scissors, and other sharp tools on the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd of Jan.;

  • Do not fight or argue with anyone during the festival;

  • Do not cry or yell at children;

  • Do not borrow nor collect debts;

  • Do not get haircuts during the entire of January.

Decoration

Chinese New Year Decorations and Symbols

 

Spring Festival Couplets — Poetic Auspiciousness

Spring Festival Couplet or Chunlian is a pair of parallelism lines, usually rhyme and with auspicious meanings that portray a lucky new year, best wishes, and a bright future.

Originated no later than the Five Dynasties (907 — 960), when people would write auspicious lines on peach wood boards, and hang or paste them on doors before the new year.

Gradually, black or gold characters on red paper became the most popular form of Spring Festival Couplets, and the writings are getting poetic.

Spring Festival Couplets, Photo from She Ying Duan Shi Pin.

Spring Festival Couplets, Photo from She Ying Duan Shi Pin.

Paste Rules of Spring Festival Couplets

In general, a set of Spring Festival Couplets contains two parallel sentences and a horizontal scroll.

  • The first line (Shang Lian), usually the tone of the last character is the third or fourth in Pinyin and is usually pasted on the door's left side.

  • The second line (Xia Lian), usually the tone of the last character is the first or second in Pinyin and is usually pasted on the door's right side.

  • The horizontal scroll (Heng Pi), usually four Chinese characters, is pasted above the door in the center.

Pasting Spring Festival Couplets

Today, some people like couplets that are fun and creative.

 

These couplets still contain the same number of characters in each line, however, they may not follow rhyme and parallelism strictly.

Meanwhile, couplets written on other colors of paper or other materials can also be used as home decor, to present one's idea, taste, ambition, literature achievement, etc.

Click to Read Some Beautiful and Auspicious Spring Festival Couplets

Fun Spring Festival Couplets for the Year of Rabbit, Picture from Shengxiaoleyuan Humengmeng.

Fun Spring Festival Couplets for the Year of Rabbit, Picture from Shengxiaoleyuan Humengmeng.

Door Gods — Powerful Guards

Door Gods or Menshen, besides Spring Festival Couplets, are important Chinese New Year decorations on doors, which are believed can exorcise evils and back luck, and bring people safety and blessings.

Worshipping Door Gods appeared no later than the Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC — 256 BC), since when their images carved on peach wood tablets or painted on paper have been used in the new year.

General Door Gods, Picture from Palace Museum.

General Door Gods, Picture from Palace Museum. 

Paste Rules of Door Gods

  • Door Gods or Menshen usually come in pairs, and came from the same background (historically, religiously, and culturally);

  • Door Gods who are strong and powerful and are better at exorcising evilness, are better to be pasted on the outer doors; those who are divines of intelligence and fortune, are better to be pasted on inner doors;

  • They should be pasted symmetrically on the door, inside the Spring Festival Couplets;

  • Two Door Gods should face each other, which looks like they are checking out everyone and everything that enters the door.

Door Gods or Menshen on Doors of Palace Museum.

Door Gods or Menshen on Doors of Palace Museum.

Who are the Chinese Door Gods or Menshen?

  • Shen Shu and Yu Lv

Came from Ancient Mythology, Shen Shu and Yu Lv are guards on the Door of Ghosts. They lead and manage all ghosts in the world, and would implement cruel punishment for those who committed crimes.

 

  • Qin Qiong and Yuchi Gong

Qin Qiong (? — 638) and Yuchi Gong (585 — 658) are two great generals who assisted Li Shimin (599 — 649) in building the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907) and getting the throne. They are extremely strong, brave, and loyal, and have been respected as popular Door Gods for centuries.

Besides, Door Gods also can be deities of Taoism Religion and Buddhism, and other respectable historical figures, such as Guan Yu (? — 220), Wei Zheng (580 — 643), Yue Fei (1103 — 1142), Wen Tianxiang (1236 — 1283).

Taoism Religion Door Gods, Picture from Palace Museum.

Taoism Religion Door Gods, Picture from Palace Museum.

Chinese New Year Lanterns — Art of Brightness and Togetherness

Beautiful lanterns, the art of night and representative of brightness and togetherness, are popular decorations, usually hanging in front of doors in pairs, for both the New Year and Lantern Festival.

Today, Chinese New Year lanterns are usually red, some are other auspicious colors, and with lucky pictures and symbols.

Click to Read More About Chinese Lanterns

Lanterns in Part of Painting "Ming Xianzong Yuanxiao Xingle Tu" About Celebrations of Lantern Festival of Chenghua Emperor

Lanterns in Part of Painting "Ming Xianzong Yuanxiao Xingle Tu" About Celebrations of Lantern Festival of Chenghua Emperor (1447 — 1487) in Imperial Forbidden City, by Court Artist of the Ming Dynasty — National Museum of China

Decors — Joyful Festival Atmosphere

Besides doors, there are other Chinese New Year decorations on windows and inside the houses, such as Paper Cuttings and auspicious plants.

People can paste, hang, and place those festival decors, most of which contain elements that are auspicious and meaningful.

Read More about Paper Cuttings, Auspicious Flowers, and Color Symbolisms.

Chinese Paper Cutting Rabbit and Auspicious Gourds, by Li Zhimei.

Paper Cutting Rabbit and Auspicious Gourds, by Li Zhimei.

Chinese New Year Symbols

They are common elements on new year decorations that represent good luck and a bright future.

Some common Chinese New Year Symbols include:

  • 春 Chun, means spring.

  • 福 Fu, means fortune, blessing, and good luck.

  • The year's specific Zodiac Animal.

  • Auspicious animals such as fish and red-crowned cranes.

  • Lucky phrases, idioms, and poems.

Read More About Traditional Chinese Patterns and Chinese New Year Greetings.

Performance

Chinese New Year Parade and Performance

 

Dragon Dance and Lion Dance

 

In ancient sacred sacrifice and worship ceremonies, people used to imitate dragons and lions, two auspicious mythical animals, to pray for blessings. 

 

About 1000 to 2000 years ago, Dragon and Lion Dances became popular entertainment activities in important festivals, whose costumes, skills, steps, movements, appearances, and props, all varied among different places in China.

Click to Read More about Chinese Dance

Dragon Dance and Lion Dance in Chinese New Year the Spring Festival

Pageant on Immortals or You Shen

 

In many places of China on important festivals, people would respectfully set statues of deities of their local temples on a well-decorated sedan chair, show them around the city that they are protecting, and wish them to cast blessings to people.  

 

Though different in each place, a Pageant on Immortals usually includes some important statues of deities, a grand touring team that leads and carries deities, and countless civilians that are welcoming them on the street and praying for fortune.

Pageant on Immortals (You Shen) in Chinese New Year the Spring Festival

Tai Ge or Piao Se

 

In important festival processions, someone would dress up, dance, or perform figures from ancient legends, mythology, and history on a moving platform that is carried by people. 

 

The performing platforms are usually tall, with exquisite decorations. When they are moving, figures dancing and performing look like floating on air, which is quite splendid. 

 

Hence, it has been a popular performance in important festivals in Chinese culture.

Tai Ge or Piao Se in Chinese New Year the Spring Festival
Food

The Traditional Food of Chinese New Year