Stuart Forster looks at the origins and heritage of Chinese New Year celebrations and annual festivities around the world.
Firecrackers flash and pop during Chinese New Year celebrations. Drums and gongs sound. Dragon and lion dances are held in cities around the world.
The celebration is also known as the Spring Festival because it’s also about the arrival of springtime and the season of fertility. A good spring clean is traditionally part of preparations for the New Year.
Hong Kong’s Lantern Festival
The festival endures for almost a month. Preparations start eight days before the new moon can be seen. Celebrations conclude with the Yuanxiao Festival – also known as the Lantern Festival – 15 days after the Chinese New Year.
If you head onto the streets of Hong Kong you’ll witness people heading to temples carrying paper lanterns. In bygone times matchmakers kept their eyes open for potential couplings in the soft light of the lamps and the date still has romantic connotations.
Variations in Chinese New Year celebrations
Inevitably, in a culture as enormous as that of China, New Year celebrations vary markedly from region to region. For example, in northern regions families paste red paper cut outs of animals onto north- and south-facing windows, a tradition that is not followed in the country’s south.
Nonetheless, you’ll note the celebrations have a number of common elements wherever you witness them.
The legend of Nian
The ancient legend of Nian is central to Chinese New Year celebrations around the globe.
Whether you’re in Shanghai, a village in Shanxi Province or strolling through the busy Chinatown San Francisco, knowing the story of the mythical creature will help you fathom what unfolds on 8 February.
With the fearsome head of a grimacing lion and the powerful body of a muscular bull, Nian dwelled in the mountains. As winter came to end his supplies were inevitably exhausted so Nian, in order to survive, had little choice but to sally forth from his barren upland habitant to seek out food.
Ravaged by hunger he fed upon crops, livestock and even people within the villages he visited. He was, it’s whispered somewhat gruesomely, particularly fond children; their tender flesh making them easy to devour.
Origins of Chinese New Year traditions
To save themselves and their terrified offspring villagers placed offerings in front of their doors. If Nian was placated and no longer hungry, why would he harm those inside the houses?
This explains why you’ll see Chinese business owners and heads of families offering food to the dragons and lions that dance through the streets during New Year celebrations. If you happen to be in a Chinatown restaurant on 8 February try to reserve a seat by the door and you could well find you have a prime spot for observing the creatures symbolically devouring food offered by the owners.
Cabbage is often chosen. It’s regarded auspicious, symbolising good luck and prosperity over the year ahead.
Firecrackers and red lanterns
After years of Nian’s unwelcome incursions villagers started to observe that he shied away from loud noises, people wearing red clothing and, like so many animals, fire.
When word of this got out people began hanging red lanterns outside their houses and red scrolls over doors and windows, to ensure their family’s safety. Gongs were struck and drums beaten. In more recent times firecrackers were ignited to scare away the fearsome beast from the vicinity of human settlements.
It seems this is working, for Nian has not been seen by anyone in living memory. Yet people persist in taking preventative measures around the New Year. After all, one can’t be too careful.
Some versions of the legend mention Hongjun Laozu, an aged Taoist monk who reasoned with Nian and eventually subdued him. It’s rumoured he may still riding Nian in the distant mountains of China.
Couplets outside of Chinese homes
In addition to lanterns you’ll also see couplets written on red backgrounds hung on houses celebrating the Chinese New Year.
Traditionally they consist of seven characters and wish people good luck – they are believed help to drive away evil spirits. This tradition dates back more than 1,000 years and began by people simply tying up two pieces of peach wood.
Dining on Chinese New Year
It is important for Chinese families to celebrate together at New Year. That means dining together, even if it means a long journey sit with family members.
Ingot-shaped dumplings known as jiaozi feature in feasts in the north of the country while in the south stick rice cakes are eaten. During feasts it’s traditional for senior members of families to hand their juniors red envelopes containing money, symbolic of wishes for prosperity and good luck over the next twelve months.
Here’s wishing you wealth and good luck throughout the Year of the Monkey.
Places to enjoy Chinese New Year
Beijing, China – If you’re going to experience a genuine Chinese New Year, why not do so in the country’s capital? At the Temple of Earth (Ditan Park) you can observe re-enactments of Qing Dynasty ceremonies and view acrobats.
You can visit a number of temple fairs around the city. At the Changdian Temple you can taste traditional foodstuffs and browse stalls for handicrafts and calligraphy.
Hong Kong – A parade slinks through streets near Victoria Harbour on New Year’s Day. The following day a grand fireworks display will be fired into the night sky.
London, UK – Enjoy the celebratory buzz at restaurants in Chinatown, just off Leicester Square. Dancing and other artistic performances are held on Trafalgar Square.
Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK – Watch dragon, lion and unicorn dances take place along Stowell Street, from the colourful gate across the road from Newcastle United’s St James’ Park stadium.
New York, USA – Major celebrations are held in the Chinatown districts of cities around the USA. Take to the streets in New York to view the New Year Parade featuring floats, musicians and dancers.
Sydney, Australia – The city’s Chinese New Year Festival includes events such as Dragon boat races and a fireworks display at Cockle Bay.
Vancouver, Canada – The colourful parade in Vancouver’s Chinatown draws thousands of onlookers and features dozens of dancing lions. Take your camera to this spectacular event, which involves dancers from the Chinese community.
Photos illustrating this post are by Why Eye Photography.
Looking for the dates of Chinese New Year? The Year of the Ox begins on 12 February 2021. The Year of the Tiger starts on 1 February 2022. The Year of the Rabbit starts on 22 January 2023.
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