Chinese New Year is the most important holiday in China. It begins on the first day of the lunar calendar, so it is also called Lunar New Year. As it is considered the beginning of spring, it is also called Spring Festival since about 1920. The Chinese year, according to some scholars, 4712 begins on Jan. 31, 2014. Though the holiday is only about a week long, traditionally it is a 15-day holiday during which fireworks light up the night sky, drums and firecrackers can be heard on the streets, red lanterns glow at night, and red paper cutouts and calligraphy hangings are hung on doors. Celebrations conclude on the 15th day with the Lantern Festival.
The date of Chinese New Year changes each year, as it is based on the lunar calendar. The western Gregorian calendar is based on the earth’s orbit around the sun. However, China and many other Asian countries such as Vietnam, Korea, and Japan use the lunar calendar that is based on the moon’s orbit around the earth. Chinese New Year always falls on the second new moon after the winter solstice. So, actually, the traditional Chinese calendar is lunisolar, using both the lunar and solar calendars.
Both Buddhism and Daoism have unique ways of celebrating the New Year, but the Chinese New Year is far older than either religion. As in many other traditional agrarian societies, the Chinese New Year can be seen a celebration of the coming of spring and the growing season.
Within China there is a wide variety of regional customs and traditions for the celebration of the Spring Festival, but the basics are the same: family, food, and fun. Families come together, sometimes traveling long distances to return home by New Year’s Eve. They gather to eat special foods such as dumplings shaped like ancient ingots and whole fish, representing prosperity and abundance in the new year. Children receive red envelopes, hongbao, with gifts of money inside. Many hours are spent enjoying each other’s company, visiting friends and relatives, and playing mahjong.
In anticipation of the holiday, the house is thoroughly cleaned and decorated. Some traditional decorations include New Year prints and couplets for the door, kumquat trees, and flowers.
Couplets are matched sayings done in calligraphy. New Year couplets, known as chunlian, express wishes for good luck, and auspiciousness in the coming year. They are posted on either side of doors.
New Year prints, called nianhua, are very colorful woodblock prints which are pasted on doors during the New Year for decoration during the holiday and are a symbol of New Year’s greetings. Originally, pictures of the Door God were used; later, other subjects, such as the Kitchen God, babies and other auspicious symbols were included. Customarily, each year families replace their New Year pictures as a way of saying goodbye to the past and welcoming the future.
Fifteen days later, the Lantern Festival signals the end of the Spring Festival. One is reminded of Mardi Gras as one goes out on that last evening to view stationary tableaux which depict traditional Chinese themes.