8 Chinese New Year Traditions, Explained
Learn the legends, superstitions, and clever wordplay behind these Chinese New Year traditions.
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The meaning behind Chinese New Year’s customs
Chinese New Year is the most widely celebrated Chinese holiday across the globe. This year, it falls on February 1, 2022, and will begin the Year of the Tiger. “Different regional cultures celebrate through distinct activities and food,” says Jenny Leung, executive director of the Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco. “For example, people in northern China eat dumplings on Lunar New Year’s Eve, while people in southern China prepare rice cakes, with the meaning of ‘climbing higher in the new year.'” As a holiday that goes back thousands of years, there are a wide variety of Chinese New Year traditions that have been passed down. Some are based on myth, some on symbolism, some on superstitions, and some on wordplay. Each individual may choose to celebrate a little differently based on preferences, beliefs, and location, but almost everyone spends time with family and eats Chinese New Year food.
FYI, Chinese New Year is also referred to as Lunar New Year, a term that includes other cultures that celebrate the start of the new year using the same calendar system. In China, it’s also known as Spring Festival. “Lunar New Year celebrates the first days of spring on the lunar calendar,” says Leung. “Historically, celebrating Lunar New Year in China was meant to pray for good blessings on farming in the new year—hence, worshiping ancestors has always been a critical component.”
Whether in China or elsewhere in the world, these are some of the most common Chinese New Year traditions and the meaning behind them that every Chinese zodiac sign can appreciate.. And it’s no accident that we’re giving you eight—eight is the luckiest number in Chinese, since it sounds similar to the Chinese word for prosperity.
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Clean up to prepare for the new year
Each year is seen as a fresh, new beginning, so starting it off with a clean house is important. Giannina Ong, editor-in-chief of Mochi Magazine, the longest-running online publication for Asian American women, advises that the timing of your cleanup is crucial. “Leading up to the New Year, you should clean as much as possible to clear out the bad luck and any leftover ill feelings from the previous year,” she says. “But on Lunar New Year itself, you’re not supposed to clean at all. The new year brings luck, and cleaning will remove that. So no wiping, no sweeping, no showering, and leave the dirty dishes from that delicious New Year’s feast in the sink for the night!”
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Decorate to invite good fortune
In terms of decoration, Ong says “everything is red because a fire sign symbolizes new life and prosperity.” The origins of red’s lucky properties may stem from a legend about a beast named Nian (an approximate homophone for the Chinese word for year), who appeared on New Year’s Eve to wreak havoc. People figured out that Nian was afraid of the color red, and to this day, people hang red lanterns, couplets written on red paper, and the character fu (meaning good fortune) on red paper. That character is usually hung upside down—the word for turning something upside down, or pouring, also sounds like the word for arriving, so an upside-down fu symbol invites good luck to arrive. Flowers and kumquat fruit trees are also symbolic of prosperity, so after cleaning, you can bring some blossoms into your house for extra good luck. In addition to these Chinese New Year traditions, check out these tips from feng shui experts to keep the good vibes going all year long.
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Family is the cornerstone of Chinese life, so naturally one would aim to start each new year in the company of their loved ones. In China, the Spring Festival comes with a one-week vacation. People across the country flock to their families in what is often called “the world’s largest human migration.” Leung explains that “similar to Thanksgiving and Christmas, Chinese New Year is also a holiday for people to get together with family members, to celebrate the spring and the start of the new year.”
The pandemic has of course made it harder for families to travel, and some may not have the means or ability to get together. If you’re separated from family on Chinese New Year but still want to celebrate together in some way, consider making the same meal as one another and check in over video chat.
Eat delicious and auspicious food
One of the most popular Chinese New Year traditions is the food. Who doesn’t love an excuse to eat a festive meal? These dishes also have special symbolism attached to them. “On both birthdays and Lunar New Year, we make sure to eat long noodles,” says Ong. “You can’t break them while cooking or cut them while eating either, because the length of the noodles is a symbol of longevity. So get slurpy!”
In addition to these long-life noodles, spring rolls (shaped like gold bars) and dumplings (which resemble silver ingots, or boat-shaped blocks) are eaten for prosperity, and a number of other foods are eaten because of how their names sound. For example, yú, the word for fish in Mandarin, sounds like the word for surplus. Fish for Chinese New Year dinner is most often prepared steamed and whole. Don’t worry if you can’t finish it—leaving a little left over further enhances one’s surplus. In other parts of the world, these are the New Year’s Eve foods believed to bring good luck.
Hand out red envelopes
Among all the Chinese New Year traditions, this one might be a young person’s favorite. Every new year, little red envelopes containing money are given to loved ones. Elders or married couples usually give these envelopes, called hong bao in Mandarin or lai see in Cantonese, to children and single people of a younger generation. According to legend, giving children eight coins in a red envelope protected them from a demon named Sui who visited on the eve of Chinese New Year, but this story isn’t widely shared anymore. “Red envelopes today are given not only to children but also to other family members and friends with different amounts of money,” says Ong. “You’re supposed to give only crisp, clean bills, and giving amounts with the number eight is always preferable. Never give amounts with the number four!” “Four” in Chinese (sì) is an approximate homophone with the word for death, so take heed!
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Watch dragon and lion dances
If you go to a Chinese New Year festival, chances are you’ll see a lion or dragon dance. “In traditional Chinese culture, lions are symbols of luck and happiness, and dragons [symbolize] braveness and power,” Leung explains. Both of these traditions are used to usher in good luck and chase away evil spirits. Accompanied by percussion instruments, the noise and ferocity of the animals protect all in their presence.
Lion dances are most often performed by two dancers per colorful lion costume. They are high-energy and entertaining, often showcasing acrobatics and humor. Dragon dances include multiple people holding the dragon costume up by poles and undulating its long body in impressive synchronicity. According to Guinness World Records, the longest dragon costume was recorded in Hong Kong at nearly three and a half miles!
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Make some noise
Going back to the legend of Nian, noisy activities are encouraged on Chinese New Year to scare away evil spirits. Little red firecrackers are the most popular means of this noise, and if you walk the streets of Chinatown on Chinese New Year’s Eve or Day, you’ll likely hear the pop and smell the gunpowder. “In present days,” says Leung, “people use fireworks to create a festive atmosphere and wish for good luck in the new year.” Most historians believe that fireworks were invented in ancient China, and the displays for Chinese New Year are nothing short of spectacular. If you’re thinking about setting off some fireworks at home to ring in Chinese New Year, make sure they’re legal where you live.
Protect yourself in your zodiac year
The Chinese zodiac cycles between 12 animals, meaning every 12 years, each animal repeats. This coming year is the Year of the Tiger, and according to the Chinese zodiac elements, it will be a Water Tiger. If you were born in the Year of the Tiger (2010, 1998, 1986, 1974, 1962, and so on), you’ll want to take some extra precautions this year. There’s a superstition that one’s zodiac birth year will be a tumultuous time. But there is a way to nudge all that action away from bad luck and into positivity. “People wear red (red underwear and socks, as well as red bracelets) to avoid bad luck,” says Leung. Accessories made from jade, which is believed to have protective powers, are also popular during one’s zodiac year.
- Jenny Leung, executive director of the Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco
- Giannina Ong, editor-in-chief of Mochi Magazine
- China Highlights: “Chinese New Year 2022: Food, Legend, Traditions, FAQ”
- Guinness World Records: “Longest traditional Chinese dragon”
- Live Science: “History of Fireworks”
- Travel China Guide: “Ben Ming Nian (Zodiac Year of Birth)”