Chinese New Year, Lunar New Year, or Spring Festival is the most important of the traditional Chinese holidays. It is often inaccurately called “Lunar New Year”, because—as part of the lunisolar Chinese calendar—the date is partially determined based on lunar phase. The festival traditionally begins on the first day of the first month (Chinese: 正月; pinyin: zhēng yuè) in the Chinese calendar and ends with Lantern Festival which is on the 15th day. Chinese New Year’s Eve, a day where Chinese families gather for their annual reunion dinner, is known as chú xī (除夕). It literally means “Year-pass Eve”.
Chinese New Year is the longest and most important festivity in the Chinese Lunar Calendar. The origin of Chinese New Year is itself centuries old and gains significance because of several myths and traditions. Ancient Chinese New Year is a reflection on how the people behaved and what they believed in the most.
Chinese New Year is celebrated in countries and territories with significant Chinese populations, such as Mainland China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Macau, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, Vietnam, and also in Chinatowns elsewhere. Chinese New Year is considered a major holiday for the Chinese and has had influence on the new year celebrations of its geographic neighbors, as well as cultures with whom the Chinese have had extensive interaction. These include Koreans (Seollal), Tibetans and Bhutanese (Losar), Mongolians (Tsagaan Sar), Vietnamese (Tết), and the Japanese before 1873 (Oshogatsu).
In countries such as Australia, Canada and the United States, although Chinese New Year is not an official holiday, many ethnic Chinese hold large celebrations and Australia Post, Canada Post, and the US Postal Service issue New Year’s themed stamps.
Within China, regional customs and traditions concerning the celebration of the Chinese new year vary widely. People will pour out their money to buy presents, decoration, material, food, and clothing. It is also the tradition that every family thoroughly cleans the house to sweep away any ill-fortune in hopes to make way for good incoming luck. Windows and doors will be decorated with red colour paper-cuts and couplets with popular themes of “happiness”, “wealth”, and “longevity”. On the Eve of Chinese New Year, supper is a feast with families. Food will include such items as pigs, ducks, chicken and sweet delicacies. The family will end the night with firecrackers. Early the next morning, children will greet their parents by wishing them a healthy and happy new year, and receive money in red paper envelopes. The Chinese New Year tradition is a great way to reconcile; forgetting all grudges, and sincerely wish peace and happiness for everyone.
Although the Chinese calendar traditionally does not use continuously numbered years, outside China its years are often numbered from the reign of the Yellow Emperor, Huangdi. But at least three different years numbered 1 are now used by various scholars, making the year 2011 “Chinese Year” 4709, 4708, or 4648.
The lunisolar Chinese calendar determines Chinese New Year dates. The calendar is also used in countries that have adopted or have been influenced by Han culture (notably the Koreans, Japanese and Vietnamese) and may have a common ancestry with the similar New Years festivals outside East Asia (such as Iran, and historically, the Bulgars lands).
In the Gregorian calendar, Chinese New Year falls on different dates each year, a date between January 21 and February 20. In the Chinese calendar, winter solstice must occur in the 11th month, which means that Chinese New Year usually falls on the second new moon after the winter solstice (rarely the third if an intercalary month intervenes). In traditional Chinese Culture, lichun is a solar term marking the start of spring, which occurs about February 4. The dates for Chinese New Year from 1996 to 2019 (in the Gregorian calendar) are at the left, along with the year’s presiding animal zodiac and its earthly branch. The names of the earthly branches have no English counterparts and are not the Chinese translations of the animals. Alongside the 12-year cycle of the animal zodiac there is a 10-year cycle of heavenly stems. Each of the ten heavenly stems is associated with one of the five elements of Chinese astrology, namely: Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water. The elements are rotated every two years while a yin and yang association alternates every year. The elements are thus distinguished: Yang Wood, Yin Wood, Yang Fire, Yin Fire, etc. These produce a combined cycle that repeats every 60 years. For example, the year of the Yang Fire Rat occurred in 1936 and in 1996, 60 years apart.
Many confuse their Chinese birth-year with their Gregorian birth-year. As the Chinese New Year starts in late January to mid-February, the Chinese year dates from January 1 until that day in the new Gregorian year remain unchanged from the previous Gregorian year. For example, the 1989 year of the snake began on February 6, 1989. The year 1990 is considered by some people to be the year of the horse. However, the 1989 year of the snake officially ended on January 26, 1990. This means that anyone born from January 1 to January 25, 1990 was actually born in the year of the snake rather than the year of the horse. Many online Chinese Sign calculators do not account for the non-alignment of the two calendars, using Gregorian-calendar years rather than official Chinese New Year dates.
One scheme of continuously numbered Chinese-calendar years assigns 4708 to the year beginning February 3, 2011, but this is not universally accepted; the calendar is traditionally cyclical, not continuously numbered.
According to tales and legends, the beginning of Chinese New Year started with the fight against a mythical beast called the Nien (Chinese: 年; pinyin: nián). Nien would come on the first day of New Year to devour livestock, crops, and even villagers, especially children. To protect themselves, the villagers would put food in front of their doors at the beginning of every year. It was believed that after the Nien ate the food they prepared, it wouldn’t attack any more people. One time, people saw that the Nien was scared away by a little child wearing red. The villagers then understood that the Nien was afraid of the colour red. Hence, every time when the New Year was about to come, the villagers would hang red lanterns and red spring scrolls on windows and doors. People also used firecrackers to frighten away the Nien. From then on, Nien never came to the village again. The Nien was eventually captured by Hongjun Laozu, an ancient Taoist monk. The Nien became Hongjun Laozu’s mount.