The Spring Festival, or Chinese New Year, is the most important traditional festival in China and is celebrated for sixteen days. There are many customs relating to food, decorations, greetings, and gifts. Here is a daily guide to the celebrations in 2016.
From the 23rd of the 12th lunar month, Chinese people carry out a thorough cleaning of their houses. The cleaning is called “sweeping the dust”, and represents a wish to put away old things, bid farewell to the old year, and welcome the New Year.
Chinese don’t clean the house the first two days of the New Year. To do so is believed to sweep away good luck.
People buy New Year food and snacks, New Year decorations, and clothes for New Year before New Year’s Eve. Chinese New Year, like Christmas in China, is a shopping boom time. Chinese people may be thrifty most of the time, but they seem quite generous in their spending during their traditional festivals. For example, they buy everyone new clothes for the festival, whether they need them or not. There are New Year street markets on the days before the festival.
Although some people decorate their houses several days before the festival, most people do it at New Year’s Eve. Houses are decorated with red lanterns, red couplets, New Year paintings, and red lanterns. 2016 is the year of the monkey, so monkey images will appear.
People may decorate their houses using some of the following things, but not all of them.
Pasting a door god image on the door is an important custom among Chinese people during Spring Festival. In the beginning door gods were made of peach wood carved into the figure of a man, hanging by the door. Later people pasted printed images on doors.
People paste door gods on doors as a prayer for blessings, longevity, health, and peace. Two door gods on double doors are thought to keep evil spirits from entering. The door gods symbolize righteousness and power in China, therefore Chinese door gods are always scowling, holding various weapons, and ready to fight with evil spirits.
Spring couplets or New Year couplets (春联: Chūnlián /chwn-lyen/) are paired phrases, typically of seven Chinese characters each, written on red paper in black ink, and pasted one each side of a door frame. Sometimes a phrase of four or five characters is affixed to the top of the door frame as well. New Year couplets are filled with best wishes. Some people write the couplets themselves, but most people buy them from the market. Pasting spring couplets is thought to keep evil away.
New Year paintings are put up to decorate houses, carrying best wishes, and creating a happy and prosperous atmosphere at the Spring Festival.
The subjects of New Year paintings are often flowers and birds, plump boys (with Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy — and fertility), golden roosters, oxen, ripe fruit and treasure, or other legends and historical stories, showing desires for bountiful harvests and a happy life. ”The Four Homelands of the New Year Painting” are New-Year-Painting Village in Mianzhu in Sichuan Province, Taohuawu in Suzhou, Yangliuqing in Tianjin, and Weifang in Shandong.
In the past people pasted paper cutouts on windows facing south and north before the Spring Festival. Paper cutouts are still popular with northerners, but people in the south only paste paper cutouts on wedding days.
The subjects and themes of paper cutouts are rich, and most of them are characteristic of rural life, because the majority of buyers are peasants. Therefore paper cutouts about farming, weaving, fishing, tending sheep, feeding pigs, or raising chickens are common. Paper cutouts sometimes depict myths and legends and Chinese operas. Also flowers, birds, and Chinese Zodiac creatures are popular paper cutout designs.
With their caricaturistic and exaggerated patterns, paper cutouts express the hopes of people looking forward to a better life, and give a merry and prosperous atmosphere to the Festival.
The New Year's Eve Feast is a "must do" dinner with all the family members getting together. Many people try very hard to make this family event. This imperative contributes to a huge travel rush throughout the country.
People from north and south China have different sayings about the food;they eat on this special day. In northern China a traditional dish for the feast is jiaozi (dumplings). They are shaped like a crescent or half moon. Southern Chinese eat niangao (a cake made of glutinous rice flour) on this special day because niangao sounds like the words for the phrase "higher every year".
Read more on Chinese New Year Food.
It is a custom for the Chinese people to watch the CCTV New Year Gala while having their dinner. The Gala starts at 8pm and ends at 12:00 when the New Year arrives. Programs feature traditional Chinese folk songs and performances. China's best singers, musical groups, and acrobats appear on the show each year.
Parents give their children red envelopes in the evening, with good wishes for their kids growing healthily in the coming year. Red envelopes always have money in. Money put in red envelops is believed to bring good luck, as red is a luck color, so it is called lucky money.
The red envelops are usually given after the reunion dinner.
This custom is called shousui (守岁 /show-sway/ ‘to keep watch over the year’). People stayed up all night in the past. But now most people stay up till midnight.
A bell is a traditional symbol of Chinese New Year. Chinese people like to go to large squares or temples where there are huge bells rung on New Year's Eve. At midnight the bells start bonging.
People believe that the ringing of a large bell can drive all bad luck away and bring good fortune to them. In recent years people have begun to go to mountain temples to wait for the first ringing of a bell in the new year. Hanshan Temple in Suzhou, in East China's Jiangsu Province, is famous for its bell to herald Chinese New Year. The custom is even beginning to be adopted by the expat community there.
Chinese people believe what you do on the first day on the Chinese lunar calendar affects your luck in the coming year.
The moment New Year arrives there is a crescendo of fireworks and firecrackers all around in populated parts of China. Fireworks sound like cannons and explosives, and chains of firecrackers make machine gun noises.
In major cities: Lighting firecrackers is one of the most important customs of the Chinese New Year celebration, but because of the danger and the noise disturbance they cause, the government has banned this practice in many major cities such as Beijing, Guangzhou, and Shanghai. Fireworks and rockets that explode in the air are still allowed in most of the country.
People in the smaller cities, small towns and rural areas still practice the firecracker tradition, and it isn't generally considered dangerous. Just as the clock strikes 12, cities and towns are lit up with the bang and sparkle of fireworks bursting in the air. The sound can be deafening. At 12 midnight, the boom from government sponsored firework displays help to make it astoundingly loud in many places.
Families stay up for this joyful moment. Kids, with (mini) firecrackers in one hand and a lighter in another, cheerfully celebrate by throwing the small explosives one by one on the street whilst plugging their ears.
Many people watch the public and private firework displays exploding for about forty minutes from their windows. Crowds at the major fireworks display venues love to watch the rockets explode brilliantly directly above them.
Like all festivals in China, Chinese New Years is steeped with stories and myths. One of the most popular one is the story of the mythical beast called Nian who was infamous for eating up the people's livestock, crops, even humans on the eve of the new year.
They say that a wise old man figured out that this beast was scared of loud noises (firecrackers) and the color red. So it's believed that to prevent Nian from attacking people and causing destruction, people would keep food at their doors for Nian so it would not harm them.
They also put up red lanterns (a classic Chinese symbol) and red scrolls on their windows and doors to scare away the beast along with lighting fire crackers which are a big part of celebrations.
A popular custom since ancient times, its forms vary widely from one area to another: from sweeping tombs in the wild to worshipping ancestors in ancestral halls or temples. Many (especially rural) people offer sacrifices to their ancestors in the main hall of the house, where an ancestor altar is displayed, and then family members kneel and bow in front of the wall-mounted shrine, from the oldest to the youngest.
Offering sacrifices to ancestors, on the one hand shows people’s respect, piety, and missing their ancestors on such a special festival; while on the other hand it is believed profoundly that ancestors will protect their own descendants and make them become prosperous. These traditional customs have been handed down from age to age to show gratefulness and to pray for blessings.
This custom is performed on several days of the Spring Festival, but most importantly on New Year’s Day.
On the first day of the New Year, Chinese wear new clothes, and say "Gongxi" (恭喜 /gong-sshee/ literally ‘respectful joy’, also translated as ‘greetings’ or ‘congratulations’), and wish each other good luck and happiness in the New Year. It is also customary for the younger generations to visit the elders, and wish them health and longevity.
In recent years, a new way to do New Year greetings has appeared, especially among the young. Busy people who don't have time to visit their friends or relatives send a New Year card or a text message instead.
See Chinese New Year Greetings.
Lion dances and dragon dances might be seen too on New Year's Day. These dances used to be very popular in China, but they are uncommon today. The dances are reappearing in many places though, and they remain popular in Hong Kong and Macau.
Traditionally a married daughter visits the house of her parents on the second day of Chinese New Year.
From the third day to the seventh day, people go out to visit relatives and friends. On the third day, some people also traditionally go to visit the tombs of their clan or relatives. Some people think being outside on the third day is inauspicious because evil spirits roam around.
The eight day is the end of the New Year holidays for most, and people go back to work. All government agencies and businesses reopen by this day.
The fifteenth day of the New Year is the Lantern Festival (元宵节 Yuánxiāo Jié /ywen-sshyaou jyeah/). It is the traditional end of the Spring Festival celebrations. People send aloft glowing lanterns into the sky while others let lanterns go on the sea, on rivers, or set them adrift in lakes.