Everyone loves holidays, right? Most of us just returned to work from Christmas and New Year’s vacation but now already, we get to plan the next one, because the Chinese Spring Festival, or, as it is called by most Westerners, Chinese New Year, is coming up soon. Spring Festival is the most important holiday in Chinese culture. As we already know, Chinese people follow another calendar – the Lunar Calendar (which they also use to mark the 24 Solar terms). Historically, Spring Festival was the time when the winter period ended and spring began. It was when people started to work in the fields again after a long winter “break” (as the majority of the population was farmers). The beginning of a new month in the lunar calendar is not stable; it depends on when an astronomical new moon occurs in a particular time zone. So, every year, the first day of each lunar month is different. In 2017, New Year’s Day falls on the 28th of January, which is rather early. But the Festival is not only one day – it spans quite a long period of time (in ancient times, it lasted an entire month) with different traditions for each day. Officially granted time off work, however, according to the Chinese public holiday calendar for 2017, is one mere week – from January 27th (Friday) to February 2nd (Thursday). But do not get too excited, January 22nd (Sunday) and February 4th (Saturday) were announced as working days to counteract all that lovely time off.
You probably already know that the Chinese calendar has 12 zodiac animals – Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig (which change every year), and also 5 elements of Chinese astrology – Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water (which change every two years). So, this year is going to be the year of the Fire Rooster. We will delve more deeply into what this means in one of our upcoming articles.
If you were in China during Spring Festival in previous years, you already know that everything is decorated with red couplets and lanterns, and during the first week after New Year’s Day, the fireworks and firecrackers will go off nonstop. The tradition to celebrate New Year “loudly” and “brightly” came from a legend about a mythical beast called the Nian (年 in Chinese, which is exactly the same character as the one for year). Every year this monster would come to the village and eat people, especially children. At one time, the villagers decided to hide in the mountain from the beast, but an old man said that he would be able to take revenge on the Nian. The people judged him to be insane or senile and would not believe him. When they left, he put on red clothes, put red papers up on the house and set up firecrackers. The Nian became very scared and ran away. The next day, the villagers came back, and, seeing that nothing was destroyed, they understood that the Nian was afraid. Since that time, with the New Year about to come, people would wear red clothes, hang red lanterns, and paste red spring scrolls on windows and doors. Also, they would use firecrackers to frighten away the Nian. This tradition has survived up to this day.
Nowadays, immediately before the New Year celebration, Chinese families clean their homes. Traditionally, they start doing this from the 23rd of the 12th lunar month, which is on January 20th in 2017. It is a very important custom, because they believe that with the cleaning, they throw out all bad things from their homes and enter “cleanly” into the new year.
On New Year’s Eve, the biggest event is the Reunion Dinner, or Nian Ye Fan (年夜饭). This is the time when the whole family gets together, and members who are working or studying elsewhere usually return to their hometowns for this dinner. In the North of the country, families usually make dumplings, or jiǎozi (饺子), after the dinner to eat them around midnight. In the South, people make glutinous rice cake, or niángāo (年糕, which literally translates as “year cake”), and it is a tradition to give the pieces of cake to family members or friends who come to visit during Festival week. After dinner, some families go to temples for the last hours before the new year starts to pray for good fortune by lightening the first incense of the year.
The other days of the Spring Festival are spent with family and close friends, and usually people exchange gifts on those days. Since gift-giving etiquette in China is very special and different from Western traditions, brush up on your knowledge by re-reading our article about getting the right gift before going to the market. Children usually receive so-called “lucky money” in red envelopes from their elders. In doing so, parents (or grandparents) wish a lot of money unto their children, as it is believed this gift of money will bring wealth in the future. That is why the money is called “lucky”.
As mentioned previously, the Spring Festival is a time for families to get together. And, because a lot of people work far away from their hometowns, this time is the busiest travel season, called Chūnyùn (春运). This period usually begins 15 days before the lunar New Year’s Day and lasts for around 40 days. It has been called the largest annual human migration in the world. For instance, in 2016, over 2.9 billion people were using public transport to get to their destinations.
Being one of the longest public holidays in China, the Spring Festival is a good time to travel around. But, because you will not be the only person to think so, be prepared for crowds and long-long lines to enter historical places if you decide to visit a popular Chinese destination. For more information on what you look forward to when traveling during Chūnyùn – check out our article about Golden Week in October (the other crazy travel week of the year where all of China is on its feet).
Of course, in our century, the way to celebrate New Year has changed, not everyone follows all traditions, and not everyone will be going back to their hometowns to visit their families. Some prefer to go on a holiday or party with some friends. Also, sending WeChat messages instead of a postcard or a call have become more and more popular. And, instead of giving physical red envelopes with money in them, people now tend to send red envelopes via WeChat. This way, people don’t have to worry about anything if they cannot visit their family members personally.
Landing East will not go away, but stay with you during the Spring Festival instead and explore some interesting topics. So, whether you are in Shenyang or traveling, stick with us, share our posts with your friends and follow us on our social media presences (WeChat, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and our blog).
Happy Spring Festival!
Written by Inna Mironova