The Amazing History and Traditions of the Chinese New Year
I was raised in San Francisco, so I always had a vague knowledge of the dates and activities surrounding the Chinese New Year. From the parades to the fireworks it was always a very pleasant and fun experience -but one that I always falsely assumed mostly paralleled Western New Year’s celebrations.
It wasn’t until I traveled through China and decided to live in South East Asia that I began to see the huge cultural significance this period has and the depth of the traditions and rituals that surround it. Rather than being a simple marking of the passage of time, and an excuse to celebrate, the Chinese culture (and the cultures they have significantly influenced) sees this as an important time to set your affairs in order.
The Chinese go through fifteen days of ritual and tradition that are centered around honoring ancestors, cleansing themselves of negativity, and preparing for the good in the coming year. Each day has its own importance and prescribed ritual activity.
Though it’s extremely difficult to understand all the nuances without being raised in the culture itself (Chinese scholars don’t even agree on what number to use when referring to the of the year), we are going to take you through some of the more prominent aspects of this event and the art and culture that surrounds it. If topics like this interest you, you can discover and understand Chinese Art with Geeker.
The first celebration of the Chinese New Year is thousands of years old, and as stated before, there is some debate over what should be considered year one. 2015 in the Gregorian calendar could have been either 4713, 4712, or 4652 in the Chinese calendar. This is a fairly moot point since the Chinese years aren’t meant to run in an infinite sequence but rather are built around cycles, another nuance derived from their culture and philosophical views.
One of the more well-known of these cycles is the twelve-year system based around animals. The Chinese give each of these twelve years a corresponding animal ranging from rats to dragons. This cycle makes most of the Gregorian year 2017 the year of the chicken (or rooster). Your Chinese birth year signifies what animal represents you. The Chinese horoscopes use these animals as their basis.
This holiday lasts for fifteen days and begins on the new moon that takes place shortly after the 20th of January. On the days leading up to the New Year the Chinese believe in thoroughly cleaning your house, car etc. to clear way the bad luck and confusion from the previous year. They will also repaint and get haircuts and all around try to refresh their lives.
Though the Chinese New Year’s Eve dinner is the biggest meal of the year, there are a number of traditional celebratory dishes that they will serve through the next two weeks. These dishes will include roast duck, pork buns, and spiced chicken.
The Days of Celebration
Once midnight of the first day hits, that’s when all the noise starts. The first night is marked by fireworks, poppers, lion dancing (those long snaking 6+ man costumes) and just all around ruckus – apparently in order to scare away evil spirits.
The Chinese people try and visit their grandparents and elders on the first day. Elders and business managers will gift their younger family members or workers with red envelopes containing money to provide them assistance in the coming year.
The second day is traditionally the day to give alms to people in the streets and to celebrate the legendary general Che Kung Miu – a Song Dynasty general worshiped for bringing peace to the country. The second day is also the nonliteral birthday for all dogs to be celebrated. This is just a small example of the diverse nature of these celebrations throughout the holiday.
The following 13 days each contain their own unique practices, superstitions, myths and traditions. Depending on what day you witness you may see the burning of specific papers, vegetarian meals, temple visits and the lighting of candles. Red clothing is also commonly worn. All of these actions were formed to have specific purposes ranging from the veneration of a past figure thought to grant favors and blessings, to ensuring longevity and good fortune to your family and country. Each day is slightly different from the other.
In the town in Thailand in which I live in today, there is a sizeable Chinese population and an even more considerable new year’s celebration. Throughout the world, the Chinese use these days as an exhibition of their culture and traditions and have gotten the majority of the local populations on board. My hometown of San Francisco claims to have the biggest Chinese New Year’s Parade outside of China and takes great pride in that fact. Like Christmas, it is one of those holidays that has transcended many of its original purposes to become a nearly universal day(s) of festivities across most of the globe.