Chinese New Year, also known as the “Spring Festival” is an important Chinese festival celebrated at the turn of the traditional lunisolar Chinese calendar. A lunar month is around 2 days shorter than a solar month, so to “keep up” with the solar calendar, an extra month is added every few years.
Chinese New Year is centuries old festival, but it is not clear when exactly Chinese people started celebrating it. Emperors had different versions of this holiday and through history, it was celebrated on different dates. Emperor Wu (157 BC – 87 BC) of the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220), established the first day of the first month as the beginning of the year.
According to mythology the beginning of the Chinese New Year started with a mythical beast called the Nian. Nian is the beast that looks like an ox with a lion head and lives in the sea. Every year Nian would come out of the sea and attack the villagers, especially children. On this day villagers, would go hiding and wait for the attack to pass. One year, an old man came and said that he will wait for the beast with the firecrackers and red papers. Since it worked, and nothing was destroyed the following day, people formed the habit of posting red Dui Lian in front of their house, launching fireworks, and hanging lanterns at year end.
Different parts of China have different traditions for the New Year, but there are some traditions that are common.
The most important is New Year’s Eve dinner named as “Nian Ye Fan”. This is an occasion where the whole family gathers to have a dinner that is a cumulation of the Year’s good work. Two dishes that can be found on every Chinese New Year table are fish and dumplings. These two dishes symbolise prosperity and the hope for a better and richer new year. Note that dumplings are very popular in North China, on the other hand, very few people in South China serve dumplings for the New Year’s Eve. They make a glutinous new year cake (niangao) and send pieces of it as gifts to relatives and friends in the first few days of the new year. The rest of the dishes depend on the personal preference and the tradition of a particular part of China.
Since Chinese people like to play with word meanings and symbols, they choose dishes or their ingredients that sound similar to words or phrases to express wishes. Other foods have a symbolic meaning. For example, apple symbolises wisdom and peace; banana brilliance at work/school; shitake longevity, sizing opportunities; coconut promoting togetherness (for more symbols see here). Also, long, uncut noodles are served. These noodles symbolise a long life and some people think that cutting the noodles means a shorter life.
Other customs for New Year’s are firecrackers and fireworks that are used to drive away the evil spirit. They also stay awake for the whole night to fend off the “Nian”, it is called Shou Sui. Also, since Nian is afraid of red, most decorations in the house would be red. The most popular decorations for “Spring Festival” are upside down fu, due Lian, lanterns, year paint, papercutting, door gods, etc.