Lunar New Year

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Chinese New Year (Lunar New Year, Yuan Tan)

Type of Holiday: Calendar/Seasonal
Date of Observation: Between January 21 and February 19; first day of the first Chinese lunar month
Where Celebrated: China, and by Chinese communities in the United States and throughout the world
Symbols and Customs: Debt-paying, Firecrackers, Flowers, Gate Gods, Kitchen God, Lucky Phrases or Spring Couplets, New Year Prints, Nian Monster
Colors: The color red, associated with good luck, can be seen everywhere during the Chinese New Year celebration (see FIRECRACKERS , NIAN MONSTER ). LUCKY PHRASES are printed on red paper, red luck candles are displayed in homes and offices, and at one time, doorways were painted red to frighten demons away.
Related Holidays: Lantern Festival, Li Ch'un, Sol, Tet


The Chinese New Year celebration is actually a two-week sequence of events, beginning with the ascent of the KITCHEN GOD to heaven near the end of the twelfth lunar month and ending with the LANTERN FESTIVAL on the fifteenth day of the first month.

The Chinese lunisolar calendar is based on the oldest system of time measurement still in use. It is widely employed in Asian countries to set the dates of seasonal festivals. The Chinese New Year takes place on the new moon nearest to the point which is defined in the West as the fifteenth degree on the zodiacal sign of Aquarius. Each of twelve months in the Chinese year is twenty-nine or thirty days long and is divided into two parts, each of which is two weeks long. The Chinese calendar, like all lunisolar systems, requires periodic adjustment to keep the lunar and solar cycles integrated; therefore, an intercalary month is added when necessary.

The names of each of the twenty-four two-week periods sometimes correspond to seasonal festivals celebrated during the period. Beginning with the New Year, which takes place in late January or early February, these periods are known by the following names: Spring Begins (New Year and LI CH'UN), the Rain Water, the Excited Insects, the VERNAL EQUINOX, the Clear and Bright (CHING MING ), the Grain Rains, the Summer Begins, the Grain Fills, the Grain in Ear, the SUMMER SOLSTICE (see DOUBLE FIFTH), the Slight Heat, the Great Heat, the Autumn Begins, the Limit of Heat, the White Dew (see MID-AUTUMN FESTIVAL ), the AUTUMN EQUINOX, the Cold Dew, the Hoar Frost Descends, the Winter Begins, the Little Snow, the Heavy Snow, the WINTER SOLSTICE, the Little Cold, and the Great Cold.

On New Year's Eve (Moon 12, Day 30) all the doors to the house are sealed with strips of paper and the head of the household performs three important ceremonies: the offering to the God of Heaven and Earth, the offering to the Household Gods, and the worship of the ancestral tablets, usually strips of wood with the names and dates of deceased family members in raised or gilded characters. Then the entire family, putting aside their quarrels with one another, sits down to a special reunion meal. At midnight, everyone presents New Year wishes to one another in a very formal ceremony known as K'o T'ou (or kowtow, meaning to touch the ground with the forehead), observing strict rules about who should bow to whom. Between 3:00 and 5:00 a.m., the head of the household breaks the seals on the front door and greets the returning Household Gods, led by Tsao Wang, the Kitchen God.

New Year's Day itself is spent paying respects to elders, setting off FIRECRACKERS , burning incense, and calling on friends and relatives. No knives or sharp instruments may be used on this day, for fear of "cutting" good fortune, and brooms aren't used because they might sweep good fortune away. The first five days of the New Year, known as the Beginning of the New Spring, are devoted to the worship of the God of Wealth. Married women visit their family homes and sweep out their houses to fend off poverty. Most people return to work after the fourth or fifth day of celebration, and by the thirteenth and fourteenth days, they're busy getting ready for the LANTERN FESTIVAL.

Telling fortunes based on the zodiac, an astrological diagram of the universe, is a popular New Year's custom in China. According to legend, the Chinese zodiac of twelve animals representing each year in succession came about in the sixth centuChinese New Year

ry B . C . E ., when Buddha invited all the animals in creation to come to him. Only twelve responded: the tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog, pig, rat, and ox. Buddha rewarded them by giving each one a year that would carry the animal's name as well as its traits: hence the "Year of the Rat," "Year of the Monkey," etc. By referring to the "eight characters" (which symbolize the hour, day, month, and year of a person's birth) and the twelve signs of the zodiac, fortunetellers can predict what events the coming year might hold.

New Year's Day is also a birthday celebration for all Chinese people, since birthdays are calculated according to the year in which a person is born rather than the day. Every new baby, in other words, is considered exactly a year old on New Year's Day. Some people, however, prefer to use the Western method of observing birthdays.



Anyone who has not paid his debts before New Year's Day loses face, which in China means that he is disgraced. Shops are open and customers line up, waiting to settle their accounts. Paying off debts is a symbolic as well as a practical act, enabling people to face the New Year with a "clean slate."

The Chinese have three traditional dates for settling their debts: New Year's Day, the DOUBLE FIFTH (Dragon Boat Festival), and the MID-AUTUMN FESTIVAL. In between times, many people live on credit. There is a great deal of scurrying around as the Lunar New Year approaches and people try to raise cash to pay their debts. If someone can't pay up, he may try to hide until New Year's morning. Then he is safe until the next settlement day-unless the person he owes goes searching for him with a lantern, indicating that it is still dark and that the debt may be collected without violating the New Year.

Poor debtors often find refuge in the courtyard in front of the temple of the City of God. Comedy troupes give free performances here, and creditors who spy their debtors in the crowd are usually hesitant to demand payment in front of other people.


Firecrackers play an important role in many Chinese celebrations. Along with fire (or bright light) and the color red, loud noises are guaranteed to scare off evil spirits- particularly the NIAN MONSTER , a legendary beast who appears at this time of year.

Firecrackers are first set off when the KITCHEN GOD departs for heaven, several days before the New Year actually begins. The noise they make speeds him on his way and also keeps evil spirits out of the house until he returns. More firecrackers are set off during the LANTERN FESTIVAL, which concludes the New Year celebrations.


Flowers can be seen everywhere during the celebration of the Lunar New Year, particularly in southern China. They are used to decorate houses and public places, and each flower has a symbolic meaning. The white narcissus, for example, stands for good fortune and prosperity; the camellia, springtime; the peony, wealth; the peach (or plum), longevity. The quince, traditionally a symbol of fertility, is often used by the Chinese community in San Francisco.

Any plant with red flowers is considered a symbol of good luck and happiness. Blossoms that open on New Year's Day signify an extra dose of good fortune.

Gate Gods

During the New Year celebration, the Chinese put up pictures of the Gate Gods, guardians of the home and protectors of mankind, on the panels of their front doors. These figures are often shown against a background of peach blossoms; according to legend, the Gate Gods were two brothers who lived under a peach tree so large that 5,000 men could not encircle it with their arms. Images of these traditional warriors have stood guard over Chinese households for thirteen centuries.

The earliest "New Year pictures" of the Gate Gods date from the late second century and show Shentu and Yulu, guardians of the underworld, who protected families by tying up threatening demons and throwing them to the tigers. They are dressed in full armor, and their faces are painted with the bright makeup of the Chinese opera.

The most popular Gate Gods today are the Tang dynasty (618-907) generals Qin Qiong (or Qin Shubao) and Yuchi Jingde (or Hu Jingde). Legend says that when the Tang emperor Tai Zong was kept awake all night by evil demons, two of his ministers offered to stand guard outside the palace gates, but they never saw a sign of ghosts or goblins. After letting them spend several nights like this, the emperor decided to have their portraits painted and hung up on either side of the gate. His sleep was never disturbed again.

Kitchen God

Tsao Wang, also known as the Kitchen God or Prince of the Oven, personifies the hearth or center of the home. He is one of the oldest gods worshipped in China, and he serves as a messenger between the inhabitants of the earth and the gods in heaven. Every Chinese kitchen has a shrine with a picture of Tsao Wang, usually in Chinese New Year

a small niche behind the cooking stove, which is considered the soul of the family and represents its fate. A good stove guarantees peace in the family, while a bad one brings strife.

The Kitchen God spends the entire year with the family, observing everything that goes on. Then, on the twenty-third day (twenty-fourth in the South of China) of the last month of the lunar year, he ascends to heaven to make his annual report on what he has seen and heard. Commonly called Little New Year, this occasion is marked with a farewell dinner given by the family and with offerings of sweet cakes and preserved fruits. Sometimes his picture is dipped in wine and his lips are smeared with honey so that he will be in a good mood when he reports on the family's behavior.

After the dinner is over, Tsao Wang's portrait is carried out into the courtyard and set up on an improvised altar with candles and incense. Prayers are offered, and the portrait is set on fire. The burning of the image releases Tsao Wang for his "ascent" to heaven. Paper spirit money (called qianchang or yuanbao) is thrown into the fire along with straw for the Kitchen God's horse. Peas and beans are tossed on the kitchen roof to imitate the clatter of the horse's hooves and to bring good luck in the coming year to the family's livestock.

The Kitchen God is usually shown sitting next to his wife. Sometimes a dog and a rooster, domestic symbols of a rural household, are shown with him. If the family is very poor and can't afford a woodblock print of Tsao Wang, his shrine may have nothing more than a plain sheet of red paper with his name written on it.

Lucky Phrases or Spring Couplets

On the last day of the twelth lunar month, the gate posts and door panels of Chinese homes are decorated with images of the GATE GODS and "lucky phrases"- brief inscriptions printed on red paper (blue if the family is in mourning) with characters embossed in gold ink. Sometimes they are written in the form of "spring couplets" or two-line verses, and sometimes they consist of only a single character. "Fu," the character for good fortune, is often used because when it is printed upside down, it sounds the same as the word meaning "to arrive," thus implying that good fortune has arrived.

A popular custom for more than 1,000 years, lucky phrases are designed to bring good fortune of a particular kind. For example, a merchant might put up an inscription designed to attract success in his business; a farmer's lucky phrase might express the wish for a good harvest. In private households, lucky phrases usually concern wealth, longevity, the gift of sons, and official promotion-all traditional Chinese ideals. The first spring couplets were composed to bring good fortune to the emperor Meng Zhang in the tenth century. It wasn't until the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) that the custom became a popular one. During the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), the composition of these brief verses was regarded as a means of measuring one's literary talent, education, and wit. They consist of two lines, called the "head" and the "tail," that correspond to and balance each other: for example, "By virtue united, heaven is strong;/Through compassion shared, earth is yielding." Many contemporary New Year couplets set political terminology against traditional descriptive elements. "Red flags," for example, might be paired with "fresh flowers." No longer composed by scholars, today's spring couplets are mass produced and can be purchased at stationery stores and magazine stands.

New Year Prints

Nianhua or New Year prints are posted at the same time as the GATE GODS and SPRING COUPLETS , providing visual images of the wishes that the couplets describe. The desire for many children might be accompanied by a picture of a pomegranate, a symbol of fertility. Wishes for wealth and honor are often represented by full-blossomed peonies. The bat is another popular subject; although associated with evil in European folklore, in China it is a common symbol for good luck and happiness. Plowing and weaving prints are popular, as are peaches (symbolizing longevity) and pictures of plump, healthy children holding pots of money (progeny and wealth). Some New Year prints portray scenes from historical novels and popular operas.

The subject matter of New Year prints has changed with the times. In the People's Republic of China, there was an increased demand for art with a socialist theme; prints often showed cooperative labor and bumper harvests. Since the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) ended, traditional New Year sentiments have been more acceptable. Some New Year prints try to combine both: for example, a picture of a communal fish pond may support the government's involvement in aquaculture, but it also symbolizes the traditional New Year wish for wealth. The word yu, meaning "fish," sounds the same in Chinese as the word meaning "affluence."

Like LUCKY PHRASES , New Year prints are purchased rather than created. Nianhua workshops throughout China produce more than 100 million of these prints each year.

Nian Monster

According to Chinese legend, there was a frightening creature called nian (which is the same as the word meaning "year") who appeared at the end of the year, attacking villagers and their livestock. Nothing could destroy the nian, but people eventually discovered that it had three weaknesses: It was frightened by loud Chinese New Year

noises, it disliked sunshine, and it was terrified of the color red. So they built a huge bonfire outside the village, set off firecrackers, and painted the doors of their houses red. The nian covered its head in fear and ran away.


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Taiwan Government Information Office in Washington DC
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009

Lunar New Year

Between January 21 and February 19; first day of first lunar month
The Lunar New Year has certain variations from country to country, but they all include offerings to the household god(s), housecleaning and new clothes, a large banquet, ancestor worship, and firecrackers.
It is the most important and the longest of all Chinese festivals, celebrated by Chinese communities throughout the world. The festival, believed to date back to prehistory, marks the beginning of the new lunar cycle. It is also called the Spring Festival, since it falls between the Winter Solstice and Vernal Equinox. It is the day when everyone becomes one year older—age is calculated by the year not the date of birth.
Activities begin in the 12th month, as people prepare food, clean their houses, settle debts, and buy new clothes. They also paste red papers with auspicious writings on the doors and windows of their homes.
On the 24th day of the 12th month, each Kitchen God leaves earth to report to the Jade Emperor in heaven on the activities of each family during the past year. To send their Kitchen God on his way, households burn paper money and joss sticks and give him offerings of wine. To make sure that his words to the Jade Emperor are sweet, they also offer tang kwa, a dumpling that finds its way into the mouths of eager children.
The eve of the new year is the high point of the festival when family members return home to honor their ancestors and enjoy a great feast. The food that is served has symbolic meaning. Abalone, for example, promises abundance; bean sprouts, prosperity; oysters, good business.
This is also a night of colossal noise; firecrackers explode and rockets whistle to frighten away devils. An old legend says that the lunar festival dates from the times when a wild beast (a nihn ; also the Cantonese word for "year") appeared at the end of winter to devour many villagers. After the people discovered that the beast feared bright lights, the color red, and noise, they protected themselves on the last day of the year by lighting up their houses, painting objects red, banging drums and gongs, and exploding bamboo "crackers." The explosions go on till dawn, and continue sporadically for the next two weeks.
In Hong Kong, it is traditional after the feast to visit the flower markets. Flowers also have symbolic meaning, and gardeners try to ensure that peach and plum trees, which signify good luck, bloom on New Year's Day.
On the first day of the new year, household doors are thrown open to let good luck enter. Families go out to visit friends and worship at temples. Words are carefully watched to avoid saying anything that might signify death, sickness, or poverty. Scissors and knives aren't used for fear of "cutting" the good fortune, and brooms aren't used either, lest they sweep away good luck. Dragon and lion dances are performed, with 50 or more people supporting long paper dragons. There are acrobatic demonstrations and much beating of gongs and clashing of cymbals.
An ancient custom is giving little red packets of money (called hung-pao or lai see ) to children and employees or service-people. The red signifies good fortune, and red is everywhere at this time.
On the third day of the holiday, families stay home, because it's supposed to be a time of bad luck. On the fourth day, local deities return to earth after a stay in heaven and are welcomed back with firecrackers and the burning of spirit money. According to legend, the seventh day is the anniversary of the creation of mankind, and the ninth day is the birthday of the Jade Emperor, the supreme Taoist deity. He is honored, not surprisingly, with firecrackers.
In most Asian countries, people return to work after the fourth or fifth day of celebration. In Taiwan, New Year's Eve, New Year's Day, and the two days following are public holidays, and all government offices, most businesses, restaurants, and stores are closed. The closings may continue for eight days.
By the 13th and 14th days, shops hang out lanterns for the Yuen Siu or Lantern Festival, the day of the first full moon of the new year and the conclusion of the celebration.
In Chinese, the lunar new year is known as Ch'un Chieh, or "Spring Festival." It was formerly called Yuan Tan, "the first morning," but the name was changed when the Gregorian calendar was officially adopted by the Republic of China in 1912. To differentiate the Chinese new year from the Western new year, January 1 was designated Yuan Tan . Today in China and in other eastern nations, January 1 is a public holiday, but the Spring Festival is the much grander celebration.
Celebrations vary from country to country and region to region. In some towns in the countryside of Yunnan province in China, for example, an opera is performed by farmers. The Chinese communities in San Francisco and New York City are especially known for their exuberant and ear-splitting celebrations. In China, celebrations were banned from the onset of the Cultural Revolution in 1966 until 1980 when dragons and lions once again appeared on the streets.
In Vietnam, where the holiday is called Tet, the ancestors are believed to return to heaven on the fourth day, and everyone has to return to work. On the seventh day, the Cay Nev is removed from the front of the home. This is a high bamboo pole that was set up on the last day of the old year. On its top are red paper with inscriptions, wind chimes, a square of woven bamboo to stop evil spirits from entering, and a small basket with betel and areca nuts for the good spirits.
In Taiwan it is called Sang-Sin . Small horses and palanquins are cut from yellow paper and burned to serve as conveyances for the Kitchen God.
The New Year's feast is first laid before the ancestor shrine. About seven o'clock, after the ancestors have eaten, the food is gathered up, reheated, and eaten by the family. The greater the amount of food placed before the shrine, the greater will be the reward for the new year.
After the banquet, oranges are stacked in fives before the ancestor tablets and household gods. A dragon-bedecked red cloth is hung before the altar. The dragon is the spirit of rain and abundance, and the oranges are an invitation to the gods to share the family's feasting.
In Korea Je-sok, or Je-ya, is the name for New Year's Eve. Torches are lit in every part of the home, and everyone sits up all night to "defend the New Year" from evil spirits. In modern Seoul the church bells are rung 33 times at midnight. While the foods may vary, everyone, rich and poor alike, has duggook soup, made from rice and containing pheasant, chicken, meat, pinenuts, and chestnuts.
Many games are played. Among the most unusual is girls seesawing. In early times Korean men stopped some of the sterner sports and forbade women to have any outdoor exercises. Korean girls then took to using a seesaw behind their garden walls. But they do it standing up—so as to get a possible glimpse of their boyfriends, as they fly up and down.
In Okinawa's villages there is the custom of new water for Shogatsu, the new year. About five o'clock in the morning youngsters bring a teapot of fresh water to the homes of their relatives. There a cupful is placed on the Buddhist god shelf, or the fire god's shelf in the kitchen, and the first pot of tea is made from it.
See also Losar, Narcissus Festival, and Sol
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Taiwan Government Information Office
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Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.
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