The period around Chinese New Year is also the time of the largest human migration, when migrant workers in China, as well as overseas Chinese around the world travel home to have reunion dinners with their families on Chinese New Year’s Eve. More interurban trips are taken in mainland China in this 40-day period than the total population of China. This period is called chunyun (春運 or 春运, Pinyin: chūn yùn, literally the transportation during Spring Festival).
On the days before the New Year celebration Chinese families give their home a thorough cleaning. There is a Cantonese saying “Wash away the dirt on ninyabaat” (年廿八，洗邋遢), but the practice is not usually restricted on nin’ya’baat (年廿八, the 28th day of month 12). It is believed the cleaning sweeps away the bad luck of the preceding year and makes their homes ready for good luck. Brooms and dust pans are put away on the first day so that the newly arrived good luck cannot be swept away. Some people give their homes, doors and window-frames a new coat of red paint. Homes are often decorated with paper cutouts of Chinese auspicious phrases and couplets. Purchasing new clothing, shoes, and receiving a hair-cut also symbolize a fresh start.
In many households where Buddhism or Taoism is prevalent, home altars and statues are cleaned thoroughly, and altars that were adorned with decorations from the previous year are also taken down and burned a week before the new year starts, and replaced with new decorations. Taoists (and Buddhists to a lesser extent) will also “send gods” (送神), an example would be burning a paper effigy of Zao Jun the Kitchen God, the recorder of family functions. This is done so that the Kitchen God can report to the Jade Emperor of the family household’s transgressions and good deeds. Families often offer sweet foods (such as candy) in order to “bribe” the deities into reporting good things about the family.
The biggest event of any Chinese New Year’s Eve is the dinner every family will have. A dish consisting of fish will appear on the tables of Chinese families. It is for display for the New Year’s Eve dinner. This meal is comparable to Christmas dinner in the West. In northern China, it is customary to make dumplings (jiaozi 饺子) after dinner and have it around midnight. Dumplings symbolize wealth because their shape is like a Chinese tael. By contrast, in the South, it is customary to make a new year cake (Niangao, 年糕) after dinner and send pieces of it as gifts to relatives and friends in the coming days of the new year. Niangao literally means increasingly prosperous year in year out. After the dinner, some families go to local temples, hours before the new year begins to pray for a prosperous new year by lighting the first incense of the year; however in modern practice, many households hold parties and even hold a countdown to the new lunisolar year. Beginning in 1982, the CCTV New Year’s Gala was broadcast four hours before the start of the New Year.
The first day is for the welcoming of the deities of the heavens and earth, officially beginning at midnight. Many people, especially Buddhists, abstain from meat consumption on the first day because it is believed that this will ensure longevity for them. Some consider lighting fires and using knives to be bad luck on New Year’s Day, so all food to be consumed is cooked the day before. For Buddhists, the first day is also the birthday of Maitreya Bodhisattva (better known as the more familiar Budai Luohan), the Buddha-to-be. People also abstain from killing animals.
Most importantly, the first day of Chinese New Year is a time when families visit the oldest and most senior members of their extended family, usually their parents, grandparents or great-grandparents.
Some families may invite a lion dance troupe as a symbolic ritual to usher in the Chinese New Year as well as to evict bad spirits from the premises. Members of the family who are married also give red envelopes containing cash to junior members of the family, mostly children and teenagers. Business managers also give bonuses through red envelopes to employees for good luck and wealth.
While fireworks and firecrackers are traditionally very popular, some regions have banned them due to concerns over fire hazards, which have resulted in increased number of fires around New Years and challenged municipal fire departments’ work capacity. For this reason, various city governments (e.g., Hong Kong, and Beijing, for a number of years) issued bans over fireworks and firecrackers in certain premises of the city. As a substitute, large-scale fireworks have been launched by governments in cities like Hong Kong to offer citizens the experience.
The second day of the Chinese New Year is for married daughters to visit their birth parents. Traditionally, daughters who have been married may not have the opportunity to visit their birth families frequently.
On the second day, the Chinese pray to their ancestors as well as to all the gods. They are extra kind to all dogs and feed them well as it is believed that the second day is the birthday of all dogs.
Business people of the Cantonese dialect group will hold a ‘Hoi Nin’ prayer to start their business on the 2nd day of Chinese New Year. The prayer is done to pray that they will be blessed with good luck and prosperity in their business for the year.
The third day is known as chì kǒu (赤口), directly translated as “red mouth”. chì kǒu is also called chì gǒu rì (赤狗日). chì gǒu means “the God of Blazing Wrath” (熛怒之神). It is generally accepted that it is not a good day to socialize or visit your relatives and friends.