Mark your calendars! This coming Chinese New Year falls on February 10th, and the year of the dragon will officially be replaced by the year of the snake! What is the ‘Chinese New Year?’ In Chinese it is known as ‘guonian’ (过年) or ‘passing of the year’ and ‘chunjie’ (春节) or ‘Spring Festival. In order to understand Chinese culture, it is essential to understand the Chinese New Year, which is the most important holiday in China.
This time of year is sometimes referred to as the biggest annual mass migration of humans on the planet. Practically everyone in China goes home to visit their parents and relatives during this period, and often this is the only time of the year that migrant workers will be able to return home. If planning to travel around China by plane or train during this period, it is important to book tickets far ahead of time. Unless train tickets are booked 20 days before the date of travel, it will be practically impossible to get a seat.
The mythology behind ‘guonian’ is that long ago there was a monster called ‘nian’ (年) that would appear at the same time every year to terrorize the countryside to seek helpless villagers to snack on. The monster, however, was afraid of the colour red and also of loud noises. Therefore the villagers would hang red objects in front of their doors, and would light firecrackers in order to scare ‘nian’ (年) away. This is where the tradition of hanging red objects and setting off strings of loud firecrackers came from. If you have the chance to experience the Chinese New Year, you will find that walking around the streets at night is like walking into a warzone – with explosions every which way and clouds of smoke filling the sky. While New Year Eve is the biggest celebration, the lighting of firecrackers and fireworks tends to continue every morning and every evening until the 15th day (the final day of the celebration) which is known as ‘Yuanxiaojie’ (元宵节), or ‘Lantern Festival’, where lanterns and candles are lit in order to guide spirits home. On this final day it is common to eat ‘tangyuan’ (汤圆) which are sweet glutinous rice balls in soup.
Chinese New Year Eve is also a huge feast with family members that begins early in the day and includes a great variety of traditional dishes. This day is called ‘chuxi’ (除夕) which literally means ‘passing the evening’. In many parts of the countryside, a pig is slaughtered for this events and the parts of it that aren’t eaten are salted and hung in order to be preserved and eaten throughout the remainder of the year. The first day of the New Year is usually spent visiting members of the extended family, giving money and gifts and wishing friends and family a Happy New Year, also known as ‘bainian’ (拜年). It is common practice to give money to those who are younger, such as younger brothers, sisters and cousins, or to children whom are unable to support themselves financially. Once old enough to have a stable job, it is generally expected that children will give money to their parents and grandparents. The giving of this money is generally in a red envelope, or ‘hongbao’ (红包). In the age of cellphones and instant messengers, it is now common to send text messages to friends, co-workers, teachers, etc. to wish them well.
Much can be written about Chinese New Year, it really can’t be truly understood until it is experienced in person. With Chinese communities found all over the world, there is bound to be a Chinese New Year celebration near you. No matter where you are or who you are with, it is truly a celebration that can’t be missed!