January represents the end of a busy holiday season for many Americans, but the most important day of the year is just around the corner for much of the world’s population.
Chinese New Year arrives on January 25 and marks the first day of a 15-day long celebration commemorating the turn of a new year, according to the lunar calendar. But where is the holiday observed and what are some of the traditions that take place during it? We explain below:
What is the holiday called?
Recently, many have preferred the term Lunar New Year to reflect the lunar calendar by which the new year is determined. The term also is more inclusive and encompasses the many other cultures that celebrate the new year around this time, including Koreans who celebrate Korean New Year, the Vietnamese who celebrate Tết or Vietnamese New Year, and ethnic Chinese people residing in Singapore, Malaysia and beyond. In mainland China, the holiday is also referred to as the Spring Festival.
However, it is also believed that, due to the influence of the Chinese at the height of their empire, many other cultures’ holidays stemmed from China's new year celebration.
Where did the holiday originate?
Chinese New Year began as a day of sacrificing to the gods during the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 B.C.), or approximately 3,500 years ago. The date was formalized as the Chinese calendar was developed in the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 B.C.) and Han Dynasty (202 B.C.-220 A.D.) and continues to be celebrated today.
Why is Chinese New Year celebrated after January 1?
China has traditionally used the lunar calendar, which took into account both the sun’s longitude and the moon’s phases. As such, the celebration lands on a different day each year. Even though today, China and most of the world follow the Gregorian calendar, a system based on the Earth’s revolution around the sun, many still celebrate big occasions based on the traditional system, including birthdays and in this instance, the new year.
While we celebrated the turn of the decade in 2020, the Chinese traditionally divided time into cycles of 60 years. Each year is categorized as one of five elemental signs and one of 12 animals — which is how the Chinese zodiac came to be.
What is the Chinese zodiac?
The Chinese zodiac is an astrology system that categorizes each birth year into an animal and an elemental sign. It also assigns certain traits to the person born of that year. For example, this coming year is the year of the rat, or more specifically, the year of the metal rat. Anyone born in the year of the rat is said to be resourceful, restless and always curious. Like rats that hoard food in preparation for a long winter, anyone born in this year is said to be good at saving, albeit a little stingy.
For more information on your sign and characteristics, click here.
How important is the holiday?
For those who celebrate, Chinese New Year is considered the most important holiday of the year.
Chunyun, or the time period in which people travel to remote villages to see their families ahead of the new year, is an example of how important the holiday is to those living on mainland China. The phenomenon is said to be the largest human migration in the world, with more than 3 billion trips anticipated within China this year.
How do people celebrate Chinese New Year?
In ancient times, the holiday was spent praying to harvest gods for a bountiful year ahead. While many families may still visit the temple to honor their ancestors or make offerings to the gods for wealth and good fortune in the coming year, Chinese New Year is more-so meant to bring family and friends together to share a hearty meal and holiday greetings.
Just like many Americans celebrate the new year by watching the ball drop in Times Square, either in person or on television, while being entertained by celebrities putting on a live show, China also puts on their biggest show of the year, the CCTV New Year’s Gala. The show includes acrobatics, comedic skits, Chinese opera, dances, a countdown and a closing song. The show was recognized by Guinness World Records as the world’s most watched television program, with more than 1 billion people tuning in worldwide to watch the spectacle in 2018.
What foods are traditionally eaten during Chinese New Year?
A Chinese New Year dinner typically features eight symbolic dishes, as eight is a lucky number representing good fortune. Some dishes include a whole chicken to represent unity, a whole fish to represent excess in the coming year and fà cài (髮菜), a soft vegetable that resembles black hair and represents prosperity.
Besides the main dinner event, many families also serve a "year cake," niángāo (年糕), a sticky, sweet treat that is either steamed or pan fried and often eaten between meals. Many households also display snacks like dried candied lotus root, kumquats and sunflower seeds for visitors that drop by throughout the 15-day holiday.