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Chinese New Year

By Betzaira Ruiz

History:

One of the most celebrated festivals around the world is known as the Chinese New Year. Some of the countries that partake in these celebrations include China, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Australia, Philippines, Taiwan, South Asia and many others around the world. Chinese New Year is based on the Chinese Lunar Calendar and each year a different animal symbolizes and represents the year to come. This year, 2021, is the year of the Ox. The celebration of the New Year starts when the moon reaches its “New Moon” phase between January 1 and February 12. Chinese New Year follows the lunar calendar, which means that the dates of the celebration vary from year to year on the Western Calendar. The last day of the celebration is known as Lantern Festival Day. This celebration dates back to the Han dynasty and has its roots in China’s agricultural practices. In preparation for the new year’s harvest, many would worship the gods and ask for a good year of crop growth.

One origin story for the Chinese New Year features a beast named Nian. Every Lunar New Year, Nian was believed to come forth in the night to prey on the local villagers. One year, an elderly beggar promised to scare away Nian in exchange for shelter through the night. The beggar kept his promise by placing red paper on the windows of the home he was staying in to frighten the beast. As Nian approached the home, the beggar set off firecrackers and beat a drum to scare the beast away from the village. The occupant of the house that sheltered the man, told everyone what he had done to keep Nian out. To prevent Nian’s return in future years, the hanging of red paper, wearing red, and lighting of firecrackers became a tradition.

The Chinese Revolution of 1911 brought about many changes including a move from the old Chinese Calendar to the Western Calendar. The celebration was renamed “Spring Festival” because it no longer marked the beginning of the calendar year. After15 days of celebration, the festivities end with a Lantern Festival on the first full moon of the year.

Traditions and Customs:

There are many traditions associated with this holiday. The most popular observed is the gifting of Lai (Cantonese)/Honbao (Mandarin) to friends and family. The Lai or Honbao is a red packet filled with what is considered “Lucky Money”, and symbolizes well wishes and good luck for the new year. Married couples give “Lucky Money” to unmarried relatives and especially to young children. This tradition brings luck to both the receiver and the giver.

Another tradition normally observed during this time is the cleaning of households. It is believed that if you do this you are chasing away bad luck brought into your home from the previous year. Similarly, at midnight, windows and doors are opened to allow the previous year to escape and make way for a fresh new year. It is also customary to paint the doors and windows red to prevent bad luck from entering. Families also try to have all their debts paid by the new year. It is believed if one does not pay their debts, they are bringing misfortune to the home for the incoming year. Bad language and crying are withheld during the celebration, as to not invite a sorrowful year.

The Dragon Dance is an ancient traditional Chinese dance performed during the Chinese New Year celebration and originated about 2,000 years ago in China. There are many types of dances- “such as the dragon lantern, dragon head, hemp dragon, grass dragon, bench dragon, lotus dragon, and luminous dragon dances.” The dragon is a central symbol to Chinese culture, as it is considered to be one of the most auspicious creatures. It is believed that dragons can control water, rain, hurricanes, and any water related disasters. People perform the dragon dance to chase away evil spirits and bring good luck into the community.

Lucky Foods:

There are many types of food that are considered to be “lucky foods”. This includes fish, garlic, turnip, meatballs or fish balls, oranges, and pomegranates. Each of these foods is symbolic. Fish represents having enough to give to others; garlic represents something that will last; turnips represent good premonitions; meatballs represent reunion; oranges represent luck; and pomegranates represent fertility. The traditional drinks served are Putaojiu and Baijiu, which are strong alcoholic drinks. Teas are also very important because they are served during the first morning of the year and they are used during rituals. Another popular drink is rice wine with strips, which is also known as Mijiu. Having huge quantities of food symbolizes the wealth of the house. The Jai traditional vegetarian dish is eaten on the first day of Chinese New Year, and it consists of vegetables that represent good fortune. This dish includes lotus seeds, nuts, black moss seaweed, dried beans, and bamboo shoots. Every ingredient symbolizes something positive.

Today’s Celebrations and in the United States

Today, the main colors displayed are red, pink, gold and orange. In many places the celebration does not last 15 days, but instead is celebrated on one day. Visiting restaurants in place of home cooking has become more popular in recent years.

As people migrate, so do traditions and cultural celebrations. Chinese New Year celebrations and community events are held in many cities across the United States, and usually include parades. Many Organizations, businesses, and entertainment centers have incorporated the Lunar New Year traditions into their annual celebrations. For example, Disneyland –prior to this year- has hosted celebrations in honor of the Chinese New Year. They serve traditional food and host parades that include the dragon dance. Sadly, due to Covid, many people will not be hosting or celebrating this event in large numbers. There are many organizations offering virtual celebrations and recipes for traditional dishes to be made at home can be found online. Below are videos that dive deeper into the history and culture of the Chinese New Year!

Videos:

Bet You Didn’t Know: Chinese New Year | History

EVERYTHING You Need to Know About CHINESE NEW YEAR!

References

“Chinese New Year 2021 – Spring Festival Celebration !” TheChineseZodiac.org, 28 Jan. 2021, www.thechinesezodiac.org/chinese-new-year-traditions/.

Kavalhuna , Russ. “The Chinese New Year.” Henry Ford College, 42 Jan. 2020, www.hfcc.edu/news/2020/chinese-new-year.

Lim, Fiona, et al. “Dragon Dance.” Infopedia, National Library Board Singapore, 21 Jan. 2016, eresources.nlb.gov.sg/infopedia/articles/SIP_924_2004-12-30.html.

Rico, Laura. “Lunar New Year Origins, Customs Explained.” University of California, 19 Feb. 2015, www.universityofcalifornia.edu/news/lunar-new-year-origins-customs-explained.

U.S. Department of State, U.S. Department of State, history.state.gov/milestones/1899-1913/chinese-rev.