The most important time of year
Extended family is the enduring constant in Chinese society. Dynasties may rise and fall; the economy may be good or bad; invaders may occupy the land, or typhoons may wash it away. No matter what, the family remains.
The Lunar New Year celebration is part harvest festival, part tribute to lengthening days, a corporate meeting among the heads of household, and a means to keep civil society functioning harmoniously.
In a traditional agrarian society, most of your kinfolk would live within a few hours of your home village. But today, Chinese families find themselves scattered across the country and around the globe. Because the calendar of this culture holds no other holidays quite like this, the pressure to go home (回家過年 huíjiāguònián ) is intense. In America, if we miss Thanksgiving we can usually see the relatives at Christmas; not the case in China.
Because of the One Child Policy, there are fewer grandchildren, cousins, nieces and nephews, making these gatherings more poignant and sentimental. Each person has more individual responsibility to ensure the family runs smoothly, making it more urgent to pull together.
The crush of travel
No surprise that the days before New Year witness the planet’s largest mass movement of people – about 375 million Chinese travel among the cities and countryside around New Year’s. (About 38 million people travel for Thanksgiving in the U.S.; about 2 million undertake the hajj.) During this time, (called Chunyun) space on trains and aircraft is booked solid; stations and terminals overflow; hotel rooms are packed.
Despite the logistical headaches and burdensome costs, the time investment and the usual conflicted feelings toward one’s relatives, the call home cannot be resisted. And with all those family members coming, the household has to be made ready. As you may expect, there are traditional processes to be followed – taking almost as long as the Spring Festival itself!
At 9 days before the Lunar New Year, the ritual “annual housecleaning” is performed. Every corner of the house must be swept – from the corners to the middle, with the dirt taken out the back door. Symbolic flowers and fruits are arranged, and red paper banners featuring short poems and wishes of good luck and harmony are hung. Other festive calligraphy and artwork is put on display.
Shopping begins in earnest to stock up on food, presents, and new clothing. There are many sales held this week – the equivalent to the pre-Christmas rush in the West. Stores were traditionally closed two days before New Year’s and a week after, although not so much in modern days.
This week is also important for the paying off of debts and the resolution of differences among family members, neighbors, and business associates.
At 6 days before the Lunar New Year, a traditional feast is held to send off the household’s “kitchen god,” Zaowang, the guardian of family morality. He departs this night for the afterworld, to submit his report on the family’s behavior. The sendoff feast is, shall we say, a bribe featuring many sweet foods and honey, to addle Zaowang with a sugar rush and seal his mouth so that he can’t report anything negative. He returns to the family cookstove on New Year’s Day.
In the last few days of the year, cleaning is completed and all brooms and brushes are stowed away (to prevent brushing away any good luck of the new year.) Family members get fresh haircuts, shaves, and baths, and set out their new clothes for New Year’s Day.
Cooking in advance of the big feast on New Year’s Eve could take up to a week. Traditionally the household will not cook for several days afterward either, to avoid using knives or scissors (which will “cut the luck of the New Year.”) In modern times, this also means the family will be visiting many restaurants over the course of the Festival.
New Year’s Eve
Finally the night of the big feast arrives. All the sons and their wives are at the dinner table (the daughters are at their in-laws’ houses.) Place settings are laid even for family members who could not be present. Younger family members ritually bow to their elders, and prayers and respects are given to the ancestors and recently deceased.
The meal is served; food and conversation are enjoyed, games are played, and millions tune in to TV special programs for a pleasant long evening leading up to midnight.
At the strike of twelve, all the doors and windows of the house are opened to release the old year. The lights stay on all night, and fireworks illuminate the sky. Light, noise, and the color red are all used to fight off the mythological monster “Nián”年 (nyee-en) … whose name just so happens to mean “year”.
New Year’s Day
The first day of the Lunar New Year is met with celebrations and parades. “Hóng bāo 紅包” (red envelopes containing small amounts of money) are distributed to the children, and gifts are exchanged among the family members. New clothes are worn for the first time, and everyone is met with a warm “xīn nián kuài lè 新年快樂 (shin nyee-en kwai luh)” (in Cantonese, “gung hey fat choy”).
Because the first day of the year sets the pattern for the rest of the year, people are to keep their tempers in check – no swearing, no unlucky words, no crying, no disciplining of children. And to keep money matters under control for the year, on this day nothing is borrowed or lent.
The next two weeks
The second day of New Year is dedicated to visiting friends and other members of your family. More gifts are exchanged. Everyone keeps snacks and niangao 年糕 (New Year’s Cakes) out for noshing.
On days 3 and 4, one’s in-laws are called on, and more snacking is done.
The fifth day is for resting at home, as Po Wu, the god of wealth, arrives at the household. It is considered bad luck to travel on this day.
Days 6 through 10 are more relaxed, with general visiting around town, leaving prayers and offerings at temples, and attending neighborhood temple fairs (and watching fireworks) in the evenings. Dinners for friends and relatives are held on days 10 through 12.
Day 13 is another rest day, where only simple foods like congee and greens should be eaten. (Sound advice after two weeks of feasting!)
Day 14 is spent preparing for the Lantern Festival, which takes place on the evening of the 15th, when the full moon rises. Parades and dragon dances are again performed, more fireworks are exploded, and finally life returns to normal in the morning.
The Lunar Schedule for New Year
Because the festival season is based on lunar cycles, the dates jump around in the solar ("Western") calendar. Each year is represented by a different animal from the Chinese Zodiac:
- 2015: February 19 - Sheep
- 2016: February 8 - Monkey
- 2017: January 28 - Rooster
- 2018: February 16 - Dog
- 2019: February 5 - Pig
- 2020: January 24 - Rat
- 2021: February 12 - Ox
- 2022: February 2 - Tiger
Home Decorating Symbolism
Blooming plants symbolize rebirth and new growth. Flowers also denote wealth and status, and because they create fruit, flowers are directly necessary for prosperity. The most common floral arrangements use:
- Plum blossoms = reliability and perseverance
- Bamboo = flexibility, compatibility, and unity
- Pine sprigs = longevity and steadiness
Other popular flowers include pussy willow, azalea, peony, water lily, and daffodil. As Chinese and East Asian culture has spread through migration, local communities around the world adapt whatever flowers are blooming at the time into their arrangements.
Artwork and other decorations often include the lucky color red, and messages of motivation, unity, peace, and good fortune.
Often the character for luck, Fu 福, will be displayed upside-down; this looks like the character for "arrival" and is a play on words meaning "good luck has arrived!"
Northern Chinese families typically eat lots of dumplings for New Year's dinner, as their shape resembles silver ingots from ancient times.
In the south, meals include the "big four" of chicken, duck, fish, and pork - all lucky animals. Fish and chickens are cooked whole, including the head and tail, to prevent the "cutting off of fortune." Noodles are cooked uncut to represent longevity. Oranges and tangerines represent good health, long life, and many children. Persimmons also bring happiness and wealth.
Leftovers are important because the 'food' word for them is also the same used in the sense of financial surplus (profit) - not just something you leave in the refrigerator to throw out a few days later!
Incorporating Chinese New Year at home
If your city has any significant Asian population, you’ll find various festivals and performances scheduled around the New Year. Attend a concert with your kids, watch acrobatic dancers, or join in the fun of a parade. One of the most modern-traditional ways to celebrate, however, is simply by going out to dinner at your local Asian restaurant!