Chinese New Year: History, Traditions & Superstitions
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Let’s do a deep dive into Spring Festival / Chinese New Year history and myths. Like many Chinese holidays, there are legends and stories that have been told for generations to explain the traditions around this festival.
Chinese New Year History
Spring Festival/ Chinese New Year history begins nearly 4,000 years ago. It was a time pray to the gods and ancestors for a fruitful harvest. Each successive dynasty has left its mark on the holiday. An emperor during the Han Dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD) set the date at the beginning of the Chinese lunar calendar, which has remained the same even in the present day. Chinese New Year is also known as Lunar New Year. The tradition of setting off firecrackers started when black powder was invented in the Song Dynasty, and later the custom of visiting friends and family, and dragon and lion dances became popular in the Qing Dynasty. The name “Spring Festival” was introduced in 1912, as the Chinese government tried to differentiate between Western New Year and Chinese New Year.
One of the more famous Lunar New Year legends is of a ferocious monster called the Nian. The name “Nian” means “year” in Chinese. This monster lived in the mountains, but every 1st and 15th day of the month it would come to terrorize the people of the village. One year, a man came to the village but found everyone locking their doors and cowering inside.
When the man learned about the Nian, he discovered a way to save the village from the terrible monster. He hung red paper on the doors and encouraged the people to beat drums and set off fireworks. When the Nian saw the bold red paper and heard the loud noises, it was frightened and ran away to the mountains. This story helps explain the Chinese New Year history of people choosing to wear and decorate with the color red and to set off firecrackers at this time of year.
An overview of Chinese New Year history wouldn’t be complete without talking about the Zodiac. This is the Year of the Pig, but where do the zodiac animals come from? The legend of the Chinese Zodiac begins with the God of Heaven, the Jade Emperor. He wanted to choose 12 animals to be his royal guards and to select them, he held a race. The animals had to cross a river with a strong current to get to the Jade Emperor’s palace.
The first to finish was the rat, who won by jumping on the ox’s back while it crossed the river and quickly running to the end. After the ox came the tiger and dragon. The rabbit made it by jumping quickly across the rocks and came in fifth. Next came the horse and the snake. Like the rat, the snake had hitched a ride to cross the river. When the horse saw the snake, it jumped back in fright, which is why it came in 7th place, not 6th.
The sheep, monkey, and rooster arrived about the same time. Depending on the version of the tale, they either helped each other across the river or came to the palace bickering. In either case, they were named the 8th, 9th, and 10th animals. Next was the dog. He took a bath in the river, which is why he arrived later than expected. Finally, the pig, having stopped for a bite to eat and a nap, came in last.
Many superstitions found in Chinese New Year history focus on keeping bad luck away. In addition to having a clean house and wearing red, there are several taboo actions. These are forbidden on specific days or during the first five days of the festival. First, sweeping and cleaning is not recommended because you risk sweeping away your good luck. Similarly, people do not take a shower on New Year’s Day. While it may sound contradictory to start a new year dirty, the Chinese fear that the good luck will wash away.
People also avoid using scissors or knives, lest his or her wealth is cut off. They do not get their hair cut throughout the 15-day festival for the same reason. Other forbidden actions include saying negative words, fighting or crying, or borrowing money. The New Year is a chance for a fresh start with plenty of good luck and wealth, so people want to steer clear of anything that could jeopardize a good year. Otherwise, the bad luck or health can follow the person for the rest of the year.
Special Days During the Spring Festival
In the past, people celebrated each day of Chinese New Year differently, with its own significance and traditions. However, in modern days, it is difficult for most to take off so much time from work and other duties. China has a public holiday from February 4th until the 10th this year. This allows families to come together for New Year’s Eve and the first five days of the New Year.
Lunar New Year celebrations begin early. Families prepare their homes by cleaning and decorating them. Of course, red is a very popular color, and people will hang up red papers with characters such as “fortune” or “happiness” written in calligraphy. Another common decoration is hung outside the door. On either side, people will write or hang Spring Festival couplets, which are poems expressing wishes for the new year.
A week before Chinese New Year begins, families set out sweet candies for the Kitchen God. The Kitchen God is kind of like Santa Claus: he watches over families throughout the year. Before New Year, he returns to heaven to report on the families’ behavior to the Jade Emperor. The hope is that when he eats the candy, he will either only say sweet things, or his mouth will get stuck together so he can’t report any bad deeds! The Kitchen God returns to Earth on the fourth day of Chinese New Year.
Day 1: New Year’s Eve and day are spent with the immediate family. Most people will have a large feast and shoot off fireworks on the first day of the New Year.
Day 2: On the second day of Chinese New Year, history dictates that married daughters return to their family’s home with their husband and children. And, everyone has lunch together. The daughters should not go back before this day as doing so signals that the marriage is not going well.
Day 3: In the past, this was a day to stay at home and avoid bad luck. Nowadays, people treat this like any other holiday and take advantage of time off to spend with family inside or outside.
Day 4: On the fourth day, people leave food as offerings to the gods as they return to earth.
Day 5: After five days of holiday and avoiding taboo actions, life can return back to normal. People pray to the god of fortune by having another feast and eating dumplings. Dumplings are said to resemble gold and silver pieces, so the more a person eats, the more wealth they will have in the new year. Many stores and shops will reopen.
Other Lunar New Year traditions include:
- Throwing away old clothes and cleaning the house to drive away the Ghost of Poverty on the 6th day
- Celebrating the Jade Emperor’s birthday with a large feast on the 9th day
- Fathers-in-law and sons-in-law coming together for eating and spending time together on the 11th day
- The 12th to 14th days are spent preparing for the Lantern Festival
My Own Chinese New Year History
On a personal note, Chinese New Year is always a special day for me, even as I travel around the world. My family has been in the US for three generations now, so I have never celebrated this holiday in a very traditional way. In fact, I only learned that it is called Spring Festival when I started online teaching! However, I remember my mom furiously cleaning the house the week before Chinese New Year and putting out oranges for good luck. Some years we went into the city to see the lion dances.
These days, I also make sure my house is clean before Chinese New Year. My mom sends me a message to remind me not to use scissors or take a shower and to wear red. Luckily, there are many Chinese overseas that I can always find a Chinese restaurant. I order noodle soup and pretend they are “long-life noodles.” This just means they are extra long noodles, but the rule is that you shouldn’t cut them or even chew them too much. My mom told me that if I bit them in half, I was cutting my life short. I know it is just another Chinese superstition, but I do not want to risk it!
As always, I hope these cultural blogs inspire you to learn more about Chinese holidays and traditions. For more information about Chinese New Year history and the holiday, read “When is Chinese New Year? How is it celebrated?”