Chinese New Year is by far the longest and most important festivity in the Chinese calendar. Chinese months are calculated by the lunar calendar, with each month beginning on the darkest day. New Year festivities traditionally start on the first day of the month and continue until the fifteenth, when the moon is at its brightest. In China, people usually take time off work to prepare for and celebrate the New Year.
Legend has it that in ancient times, Buddha asked all the animals to meet him on Chinese New Year. Twelve came, and Buddha named a year after each one. He announced that the people born in each animal's year would have some of that animal's personality.
Traditionally at Chinese New Year celebrations people wear red clothes, decorated with poems on red paper, and give children "lucky money" in red envelopes. Red symbolizes fire, which according to legend can drive away bad luck. The fireworks that illuminate the festivities are rooted in the same ancient customs. Thousands of years ago, people in China lit bamboo stalks, believing that the crackling flames would frighten evil spirits.
For the Chinese, the New Year is a time for family reunion. Family members gather at each other's homes for visits and shared meals, most significantly a feast on New Year's Eve.
It is important for Chinese people to start the New Year as they wish it to continue, as it is believed that appearance and attitude at this time sets the tone for the whole year. It is considered unlucky to greet anyone in the bedroom, so even the sick and elderly will get up out of bed on this day. Scissors and knives will not be used as it is thought that they can cut off their good fortune.
Another ancient practice is that the entire house should be cleaned on New Year's Eve. All brooms, brushes, dust pans and other cleaning equipment are put away after the cleaning. Sweeping or dusting should not be done on New Year's Day for fear that good fortune will be swept away.
After New Year's Day, the floors may be swept. Beginning at the door, the dust and rubbish are swept to the middle of the parlor, then placed in the corners and not taken or thrown out until the fifth day. At no time should the rubbish in the corners be trampled upon. In sweeping, there is a superstition that if you sweep the dirt out over the threshold, you will sweep one of the family members away. Also, to sweep the dust and dirt out of your house by the front entrance is to sweep away the good fortune of the family; it must always be swept inwards and then carried out, then no harm will follow. All dirt and rubbish must be taken out the back door.
The lantern festival is one of the most popular traditions, and is held on the fifteenth day of the first lunar month. Some of the lanterns may be works of art, painted with birds, animals, flowers, zodiac signs, and scenes and characters from legends and history. People adorn temples with glowing lanterns, and carry lanterns on evening parades under the glow of the full moon.
For many revelers the highlight of the lantern festival is the dragon dance. The dragon can stretch to over a hundred feet long, and is typically made of silk, paper, and bamboo, and is always colourful and beautiful to look at. Traditionally the dragon is held aloft by young men who dance as they guide the colourful beast through the streets on this ancient and dignified celebration.
The Chinese invented fireworks, so it’s no surprise to learn that firecrackers are used extensively on Chinese New Year. In ancient China bamboo stems filled with gunpowder that were burnt to create small explosions were once used to drive away evil spirits. In more recent times, this method has evolved into the use of firecrackers during the festive season. Firecrackers are usually strung on a long fused string so it can be hung down, with each firecracker rolled up in red paper. Once lit the firecracker lets out a loud popping noise and as they are usually strung together by the hundreds, or even thousands. The firecrackers are known for their deafening explosions that it is thought to scare away evil spirits. The burning of firecrackers also signifies a joyful time of year and has become an integral aspect of Chinese New Year celebrations.
It is good to see the nation that invented fireworks still using them so profusely today, and it is a custom that we don’t think will end.