Chinese New Year
The Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival as it’s been called since the 20th century, remains the most important social and economic holiday in China. Chinese New Year is the longest and most important celebration in the Chinese calendar. The Chinese year 4713 begins on Feb. 19, 2015. Originally tied to the lunar-solar Chinese calendar, the holiday was a time to honor household and heavenly deities as well as ancestors.
Chinese months are reckoned by the lunar calendar, with each month beginning on the darkest day. New Year festivities traditionally start on the first day of the month and continue until the fifteenth, when the moon is brightest. It was also a time to bring family together for feasting. With the popular adoption in China of the Western calendar in 1912, the Chinese joined in celebrating January 1 as New Year’s Day. China, however, continues to celebrate the traditional Chinese New Year, although in a shorter version with a new name–the Spring Festival. In China, people may take weeks of holiday from work to prepare for and celebrate the New Year.
The Ancient Chinese Calendar
The ancient Chinese calendar, on which the Chinese New Year is based, functioned as a religious, dynastic and social guide. Oracle bones inscribed with astronomical records indicate that it existed at least as early as 14th century B.C., when the Shang Dynasty was in power. The calendar’s structure wasn't static: It was reset according to which emperor held power and varied in use according to region.
The Chinese calendar was a complex timepiece. Its parameters were set according to the lunar phases as well as the solar solstices and equinoxes. Yin and yang, the opposing but complementary principles that make up a harmonious world, also ruled the calendar, as did the Chinese zodiac, the cycle of twelve stations or “signs” along the apparent path of the sun through the cosmos. Each New Year was marked by the characteristics of one of the 12 zodiacal animals: the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and pig.
A Charming New Year
Legend has it that in ancient times, Buddha asked all the animals to meet him on Chinese New Year. Twelve came, and Buddha named a year after each one. He announced that the people born in each animal's year would have some of that animal's personality. Those born in sheep years are often artistic, charming, sensitive, and sweet. It is known as the most creative sign in the Chinese zodiac. Jane Austen, Boris Becker, Jamie Foxx, Michelangelo, Mark Twain, Rudolph Valentino, Barbara Walters, Bruce Willis, and Orville Wright were born in the year of the sheep.
The Traditional Chinese New Year
The Chinese New Year period began in the middle of the 12th month and ended around the middle of the first month with the waxing of the full moon. Observance of the New Year period was traditionally divided into New Year’s Eve and the first days of the New Year.
Traditionally for the Chinese, New Year was the most important festival on the calendar. The entire attention of the household was fixed on the celebration. During this time, business life came nearly to a stop. Home and family were the principal focuses. In preparation for the holiday, homes were thoroughly cleaned to rid them of “huiqi,” or inauspicious breaths, which might have collected during the old year. Cleaning was also meant to appease the gods who would be coming down from heaven to make inspections. Ritual sacrifices of food and paper icons were offered to gods and ancestors. People posted scrolls printed with lucky messages on household gates and set off firecrackers to frighten evil spirits. Elders gave out money to children. In fact, many of the rites carried out during this period were meant to bring good luck to the household and long life to the family–particularly to the parents.
Fireworks and Family Feasts
At Chinese New Year celebrations people wear red clothes, decorate with poems on red paper, and give children "lucky money" in red envelopes. Red symbolizes fire, which according to legend can drive away bad luck. The fireworks that shower the festivities are rooted in a similar ancient custom. Long ago, people in China lit bamboo stalks, believing that the crackling flames would frighten evil spirits.
Did You Know?
San Francisco, California, claims its Chinese New Year parade is the biggest celebration of its kind outside of Asia. The city has hosted a Chinese New Year celebration since the Gold Rush era of the 1860s, a period of large-scale Chinese immigration to the region.
Most important was the feasting. On New Year’s Eve, the extended family would join around the table for a meal that included as the last course a fish that was symbolic of abundance and therefore not meant to be eaten. In the first five days of the New Year, people ate long noodles to symbolize long life. On the 15th and final day of the New Year, round dumplings shaped like the full moon were shared as a sign of the family unit and of perfection.
Significantly, younger generations of Chinese now observe the holiday in a very different manner from their ancestors. For some young people, the holiday has evolved from an opportunity to renew family ties to a chance for relaxation from work.