For most non-Chinese folks around the world, Chinese New Year is all about dancing dragons and Kung Pao chicken take away. Obviously there’s a bit more to than that. The country has been celebrating the lunar New Year festival for so many centuries almost everyone has lost count, and – as expected – things have changed a bit over the years.
Chinese New Year vs. Spring Festival
What began as a spring festival honoring new life is now simply a chance to relax, catch up with family and friends and indulge in some home cookin’. Many old school traditions are still observed, but thanks to a nearly 50-year Communist-mandated freeze, many aspects have slipped into obscurity – even the name. In 1996 the traditional Chinese New Year morphed into the more generic and politically-pleasing “Spring Festival.”
Chinese New Year 2014 begins on January 31 and marks the start of the Year of the Horse, according to the Chinese Zodiac.
The festivities kick off two weeks prior. Week one is packed with visiting loved ones, while the second is all about preparations for the brilliant lantern festival. However, before anything can get underway, every single household in the country undergoes a massive overhaul.
Clean up – then get down
Bad luck, or huigi has a tendency to build up in the corners. As Chinese New Year is all about, health, wealth and abundance that old huigi can really bring down the party. Plus, only when the house is spic and span can the ancestors and deities be properly honored. Three days before the big celebration families bust out the brooms and dustpans and give their homes a thorough cleaning.
Afterward, all those dust bunnies are replaced with messages written on red (the color of good luck) paper or fancy scrolls bearing the characters for “Wealth” and “Happiness” among others. Some folks even go the extra mile and schedule a haircut.
Many symbols of the traditional celebration have held strong in modern times. For instance, red, which signifies fire, is said to keep unfriendly spirits at bay, so visitors should expect to be fairly bombarded by the vibrant color. It’s not at all unusual for families to dress head to toe in flaming new threads.
Yellow and orange are also lucky tones, but whatever you do don’t show up to a Chinese New Year celebration in black or white. The colors for bad luck and death respectively, this fashion faux pas is the quickest way to bring the shindig to a screeching halt.
The red theme carries through into other traditions as well. On New Year’s Day Chinese kiddos often wake to find red envelopes bursting with money and sweets stuffed under their pillows. The phrase “Kung Hei Fat Choi,” which roughly translates as “blessings for wealth,” is a common greeting for this day in particular.
Light Up the Night: Fireworks & the Lantern Festival
Perhaps the most exciting aspect of the celebration (save for the Lantern festival) is the late night fireworks. Thought to frighten off pesky evil spirits, families stay up for hours shooting sparks into the night air.
The grand finale of the two week celebration is the huge lantern festival, which coincides with the full moon. These hand-painted paper lanterns often feature scenes from Chinese history and folk tales, and are hung in windows and carried throughout the town. The celebration culminates in the classic dragon dance. Young men are recruited for dancing duty, and hold the bamboo, paper and silk dragon high as they parade through the town, seeking donations and delighting the crowd.
Naturally, food is a crucial component to the New Year festivities. Throughout the first five days of the celebration, the Chinese consume tons of long noodles in hopes that they’ll translate into long life. Some dishes are even eaten simply because they have a lucky sounding name. For instance, fat choi, made of hair-like plants and pitch black, is an absolute must-eat for most Chinese families, and sounds like the phrase “get richer” in the local lingo. Often fat choi is served alongside ho shi, dehydrated oysters whose Chinese name bears a strong resemblance to the sounds for “good events.”
The last course in a traditional New Year’s feast is always fish – however it’s a feast for the eyes only. The word for fish in Chinese (yu) sounds exactly like “left” as in, you better hope there’s something left in your bank account after two weeks of partying. Placed on the table to serve as a reminder to go easy on those credit cards, the fish is granted a post-mortem reprieve to encourage the family to spend wisely.
On the final day of the festivities, everyone goes nuts on sweet rice cakes, or “go.” Shaped like the full moon (and eaten on the full moon) these glutinous cakes are shared amongst family and friends as a sign of unity. In this case the word “go” sounds similar to the word for “high.” For the Chinese, this translates as doing all things in life at the highest level; careers, education, etc.
Chinese New Year around the Globe
These New Year festivities aren’t just for the Chinese, and people around the world like to get in on the party.
Chinese New Year in Singapore
Singapore’s massive Chinese population has taken the traditional New Year’s celebration global. Each year the city plays host to an impressive parade which in the past has featured everything from roller skating dragon dancers and Taiwanese acrobats to Indian dancers and a French giant.
Read more about celebrating Chinese New Year in Singapore
Chinese New Year in Vietnam
Vietnam´s version of Chinese New Year is called Tet. Although the festival is celebrated on the same day as its Chinese counterpart, it has its own distinctive customs and traditions.
New Year’s Day is just one big game for Vietnamese kids – literally. Each year children dress up as kings, queens and servants, then head to Hanoi’s Culture Center Building to play live chess in the courtyard.
Read more about Vietnamese New Year: Tet
Chinese New Year in Taiwan
Like China, the Taiwanese love a good lantern festival. The celebration centers on the National Theater and Concert Hall in Taipei and featured more than 100 floats complete with lanterns and mechanical puppets. That’s all nice, but it’s tough to compete with a 100 meter-long dancing dragon.
Chinese New Year in South Korea
Like the Chinese, Koreans celebrate the New Year by wearing traditional costumes and holding formal greeting ceremonies between family members – which usually ends in the little ones receiving a fistful of cash (though not in a red envelope). Family feasts and traditional dances are also held on this day.