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A Brief Guide to Chinese New Year

Chinese New Year History:

Chinese New Year started more than 4,000 years ago and today is celebrated by people all over the world. Similar celebrations occur in Japan, Korea and Vietnam known as the Lunar New Year or Spring Festival. Farming has always been important to China and Chinese New Year started as a way to celebrate the end of one planting season and the beginning of another.

Then, as now, family and friends gathered, special foods were eaten, decorations hung and firecrackers lit in celebration of this vital holiday. One can imagine the ancestors marching through their village, lamps held gaily to mark their way, to chase off the old year and to welcome the light and warmth of Spring to its arrival.

The Chinese Calendar:

Since its beginnings in 2600 B.C., the Chinese calendar has been a lunar calendar, fixed to the cycles of the moon. The beginning of the New Year therefore varies from year to year. In 2003, the New Year falls on Feb. 1, and traditionally, celebration of the New Year continues for the next 15 days.

A complete cycle of the Chinese calendar takes 60 years and is made up of five cycles of 12 years each. Historically, Emperor Huang Ti is credited with introducing the first cycle and each year in the cycle is represented by an animal, creatures native to China that have been imbued with centuries of symbolic meaning. A European term for this cycle and the animals represented herein is the Chinese Zodiac.

The Chinese Zodiac & The Year of the Ram:

Chinese culture ascribes varying qualities to the twelve animals that make up the Chinese Zodiac. Tradition holds that the animal ruling the year a person is born has a profound influence on their personality. Last year's vital Year of the Horse will be turning its reigns over to the gentler Year of the Ram in 2003. The Ram is an auspicious symbol, offering amiability, sensitivity and peace to the coming year.

In full, the Chinese Zodiac is comprised of the following animals: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Ram, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Boar. One Zodiac legend has it that Lord Buddha called all the animals to come to him before he left the earth. Only twelve came to bid him farewell and as a reward he named a year after each one in the order that they arrived, Rat being the first and Boar the last.

Preparations for the New Year:

Chinese New Year lasts for fifteen days, but preparations can begin a month or more before celebration commences. One's home must be cleaned and scrubbed, good luck decorations may be hung, and new clothes are often bought to celebrate the beginning of a new year. Hair might even be cut in preparation for the holiday. One wouldn't want to 'cut' their luck by getting a trim after the New Year has already begun.

The Chinese of long ago believed in many different Gods and felt they could bring luck, wealth and happiness into their lives by observing certain symbols, rituals and traditions. While the intellectual beliefs of many Chinese have changed since that time in history, the observance and richness of symbolic belief has remained an important part of Chinese New Year celebration.

Other observances include hanging poems of good wishes inside the home, buying Narcissus, the official New Year's plant or other flowering plants and fruits to place around the home or give as gifts. Tradition dictates that if a flower blooms on New Year's, it's a sign of good things to come. Special bowls of fruit may also be placed around the home, filled with oranges, pommelos and tangerines to usher in even more good luck.

Another important preparation for the New Year is to pay off old debts. Money owed to friends and even stores should be paid back before the New Year. This custom dates back to long ago when storeowners would visit their customer's homes to get back money owed them. If the occupants didn't pay, the storeowners hung lanterns outside the home to indicate the remaining debt.

New Year's Eve:

Once New Year's Eve arrives, the whole family gathers for a feast. Nian Goa, the New Year's cake, is prepared, and the higher it rises, the better the New Year will be. Special foods are filled with meaning: fried rice implies getting along; pork promises wealth; duck signals happiness; fish equals long life and good fortune, and dumplings signify a happy family life. In addition, sweets such as dried kumquats, coconuts and lychees are given to symbolically satisfy the Kitchen God. Practically, they satisfy everyone's sweet tooth!

After dinner, family and friends play games, tell stories, and children stay up as long as possible in deference to an old custom comparing the length of their wakefulness to the length of their parent's life. At midnight, fireworks proclaim the New Year has arrived and then continue through the night, in some places until dawn. At daybreak, the fireworks begin again and celebration begins in earnest.

15 Days of Celebration:

On the first day of the New Year, an ancient custom called Hong Bao, literally translated as 'red packet', takes place. Red is propitious, the color of happiness, and therefore it is a red envelope with cash inside that is presented to children and unmarried adults, signifying the giving and receipt of good fortune. The money is not as important as the expression of good fortune represented by this custom. It is therefore considered rude for the recipients to open their Hong Bao in front of the givers.

For the next several days, family and friends will be visited and many gifts exchanged in celebration of the New Year. Stores will hang banners often depicting the new zodiac year or invocations of good luck. Some celebrants pray and make offerings at shrines during Chinese New Year while others eagerly anticipate the Lantern Festival or Dragon Parade to come.

Lantern Festival:

The Lantern Festival marks the end of the New Year celebration and features signing, dancing, and lanterns of all shapes and sizes. In Chinese communities across the globe, children carry all kinds of colored lanterns in the streets and squares. Homes and businesses hang lanterns outside their front door and gates. The streets on the first full moon of the year provide a spectacular backdrop for these glowing lanterns and the exuberant, smiling faces of Chinese New Year.

Chinese New Year in the New Millenium:

Many Chinese and Chinese-Americans continue to observe the ancient customs of the New Year celebration because it provides continuity with the past and with a rich, cultural identity. Though the celebration of Chinese New Year varies by region, the underlying message remains one of peace and togetherness among family and friends. A warm, happy holiday full of good wishes is foremost in the meaning of Chinese New Year.

We invite you to join us beginning February 1st for activities including a lion dance, puppet shows, storytelling, and an art exhibition to ring in the Year of the Ram.


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