Each year, Chinese New Year takes place. It’s a tradition that spans over 4,000 years! Read more to learn about its history, practice, and why it doesn’t fall on the day you’d think!
An annual tradition celebrated for more than 4,000 years
There will be hands filled with red packets of money and streets filled with dancing dragons as people worldwide, predominately of Chinese descent, welcome the Year of the Ox. Known to the Chinese as Lunar New Year, what we in the West call Chinese New Year falls on Friday, February 12, 2021, and celebrations will climax with the Lantern Festival on February 26.
What is Chinese New Year?
Also called Spring Festival, the holiday marks the beginning of the lunar Chinese calendar. The Chinese New Year is packed with tradition, family gatherings, superstition, and great food. Each day has a special name and tradition. The standard public holiday for mainland China is seven days from Chinese New Year’s Eve to the sixth day of the lunar calendar new year.
Since all stores in China are closed during the first five days of the Spring Festival, and some remain closed until the very end, people have to stock up on New Year supplies ahead of time. Spring Festival really gets underway on Lunar New Year’s Eve (this year on February 11) with a reunion dinner which is considered the most important meal of the year. After dinner, the children receive red envelopes, and the family stays up late to await the New Year.
Each day of Spring Festival is unique
New Year (February 12 this year) starts off with a bang as firecrackers punctuate a day of greetings and blessings among neighbors. The original name for Spring Festival was Yuán Dàn (Yuán means “the beginning”). In ancient times, the Chinese recorded and analyzed the weather, stars and moon to predict the fortunes of the year, a practice known as zhàn suì. On Lunar New Year people may celebrate with Tu Su wine. Tradition holds that it is forbidden to sweep or clean on this day, so that good fortune will not be swept away.
The next day of Spring Festival is called “to the in-law’s”. On this day, a married daughter must bring her husband and children to her parents’ home along with a gift bag of crackers and candies, which her mother will divide between neighbors. This simple gesture by the daughter expresses her longing for her hometown.
Day of the Rat
Following “in-laws” day is the “Day of the Rat”. In 2021 it so happens to fall on February 14, Valentine’s Day, appropriately because, according to folktales, this is the day that rats marry. On this day people will leave out some grains and crackers to share their harvest with the rats. They will then retire early so as not to disturb the “wedding”. The hope is if they do this, the rats will not disturb them during the coming year either.
Day of the Sheep
The fourth day of Lunar New Year is the “Day of the Sheep”. In the Chinese creation story, sheep were created on the fourth day. On this day the Chinese would traditionally pray to the god of wealth on this day. At midnight, people will welcome the god into their home by opening the windows and feasting until daybreak. Special foods for this feast are kumquats and sugarcanes — meant to represent a sweet life and successful road ahead — plus cakes, a whole pig, chicken, fish, and soup. Superstition says it’s forbidden to slaughter a sheep on this day.
Take a break
“Day of the Sheep” is followed by “Break Five”, when after praying to the god of wealth, markets and stores open again. A traditional dish of dumplings are eaten on “Break Five”. Some say that the taboos of other days can be done on the fifth. Others claim it’s wrong to work on this day.
Day of the Horse
Day six of Spring Festival is known as the “Day of the Horse” because this noble beast was created on the sixth day. On this day people will send the spirit of poverty away. This frail-looking man who likes to drink thin porridge and turned his clothing into rags on purpose is chased away by burning scraps and offering banana boat candles. It’s also believed that the god of bathrooms will visit to check on a home’s cleanliness, so everyone in the house is expected to clean on this day.
Day of the Human
Day seven of Lunar New Year is called “Day of the Human” because — you guessed it — humans were created on the seventh day. Originating in the Han dynasty, “Day of the Human” traditions include wearing a hair accessory called rén sheng and eating seven gem porridge. This delicious dish includes seven types of vegetables: kale, leek, mustard leaves, celery, garlic, spring vegetable and thick leaf vegetables.
Day of the Millet
After the “Day of the Human”, it’s “Day of the Millet”. Legend has it that this is the millet grain’s birthday. Ancient Chinese society was agrarian and, therefore, people highly valued the grain. On this day, pets such as fish and birds are released back into the wild as a gesture of respect for nature. Today, some families visit rural areas to learn about agriculture. Fair weather on this day is a sign of a fruitful harvest, but a gray sky warns of losses ahead.
The ninth day of Lunar New Year is called Providence Health. It’s the birthday of the sovereign god of the universe, the Jade Emperor. The main activities on this day are ceremonies for the Jade Emperor. In some places, women will bring perfumed flower candles to natural wells and harbors and offer prayers to the gods. Everyone must fast and bathe before praying.
The Stone Festival is the tenth day of Lunar New Year. In some places the night before, people freeze a clay jar onto a smooth stone. On the morning of the tenth day, ten youths will carry the jar around, and if the stone doesn’t fall, it’s an omen of a good harvest. A traditional lunch on Stone Festival is a meal of baked bread. It is believed that after the luncheon, the road to wealth will be open and smooth for that year, unless one uses stone tools, such as rollers and millstones, on the day.
Son-in Law Day
The eleventh day is Son-in-law Day when fathers will invite their daughters and sons-in-law to dinner.
Lantern Festival preparations
On days twelve, thirteen, and fourteen, people make preparations for the Lantern Festival by purchasing lanterns and constructing light sheds. The old adage goes: “make noise on the 11th, build light sheds on the 12th, light the lantern on the 13th, light is bright on the 14th, a full moon on the 15th, end the light on the 16th”. When spoken in Chinese, the saying has a nice rhythm.
The Lantern Festival
Lunar New Year culminates in the five-day Lantern Festival. The most important activity during the festival is creating lanterns. Lantern Riddles is a game played by writing riddles on lanterns. As it is a full moon that day, moon-gazing amidst lanterns is the best way to celebrate. Traditional food includes glutinous rice balls called yuan xiao. Either boiled, steamed or fried, they represent reunions. Lanterns are lit by those hoping to add children to their families.
New Year Oddities
Beyond the usual Spring Festival traditions, the holiday is full of interesting quirks and customs.
- Traffic is chaotic
The world’s largest annual movement of humans happens before and after Lunar New Year. It’s so big, it has its own name — Chunyun. It’s when all of China travels at once. The Chinese push their way into packed buses or stand for hours on a crowded train to visit loved ones.
- Odd language customs
There are some things you can and can’t do over the Lunar New Year in China — simply because of how they sound. Footwear purchases are a no-no for the entire lunar month, as the word for shoes sounds like “losing” in Cantonese. One can, though, invert the Chinese character for luck to make “dao” (which sounds like “arrival”) and put it on your door to bring in good fortune.
Ever wonder why firecrackers are associated with Lunar New Year? Legend has it that the half-dragon, half-lion monster “Nian” comes out of hiding and attacks people (especially children) during the Lunar New Year. So the firecrackers are used to scare him away (apparently he has sensitive ears).
- Wearing red
In Chinese culture red is associated with luck and prosperity, but it’s also used for protective purposes. In addition to being spooked by loud noises, “Nian” is frightened by the color red.
- Lunar New Year has its own movie genre
The “hesuipian” film genre in China and Hong Kong is devoted to Lunar New Year. The films are usually uplifting comedies focusing on families and happy endings to make viewers feel warm and fuzzy. Kind of like Christmas movies in the West.
Resources for Teaching about and around Chinese New Year
Help Teaching has many fun educational resources which use the holiday to teach math and English.
- Chinese New Year Classification
- Chinese New Year Addition
- Chinese New Year Math
- Chinese New Year Word Problems
- Chinese New Year Fractions
- Chinese New Year Probability
- Chinese New Year Whole Numbers
- Chinese New Year Decimals and Percents
- Chinese New Year Matching
- Chinese New Year Writing Prompt
- Chinese New Year Chart
- Chinese New Year Research
- Chinese Zodiac Scramble
- Chinese Zodiac Spelling
- Chinese New Year Matching
- Chinese New Year Missing Letter
- Chinese New Year vocabulary
- Chinese New Year: 13 Coloring Pages
- Chinese Zodiac Word Scramble
- The Ten Suns: A Chinese Myth
Here are some fun Chinese New Year learning activities from ReadWriteThink, and this Chinese New Year Fan Dance hands-on lesson from Teacher.org integrates social studies concepts with performing arts. Students will delve into customs of Chinese New Year by exploring traditional artifacts and dance.
The Asia Society is planning virtual celebrations for 2021, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum is ringing in the Year of the Ox with online celebrations. The Southern Oregon Chinese Cultural Association presents the Year of the Ox virtual celebrations, and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art is streaming a 12-hour broadcast event completely free (and no registration is required). From art making classes to online dance and music, puppet shows and talks, there are many ways to celebrate. Usher in the Year of the Ox with online events provided by The Museum of Chinese in America Lunar New Year Family Festival.
However you choose to celebrate or learn about Chinese New Year, we at Help Teaching offer you this traditional greeting: 恭 禧 發 財 or “Gong Xi Fa Cai” (pronounced goong ssee fah tsign), which is Mandarin for “wishing you great happiness and prosperity”.
Image source: Freepik.com
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