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Lunar New Year

February 8, 2008

Mandarin oranges, gold coins and gold ingots

Chinese New Year (Chinese: 春節, 春节, Chūnjíe; 農曆新年, 农历新年, Nónglì Xīnnián; or 過年, 过年, Guònián), also known as the Lunar New Year or the Spring Festival is the most important of the traditional Chinese holidays. It consists of a period of celebrations, starting on New Year’s Day, celebrated on the first day of the first month of the Chinese calendar, i.e. the day of the second new moon after the day on which the winter solstice occurs, unless there is an intercalary eleventh or twelfth month in the lead-up to the New Year-in such a case, the New Year falls on the day of the third new moon after the solstice. (The next time this occurs is in 2033.) The Chinese New Year period ends with the Lantern Festival, the fifteenth day of the month.

Some Chinese believe that Nian (“Nyehn”) was a reptilian predator that could infiltrate houses silently like the infamous man-eating leopards of India. The Chinese soon learned that Nian was sensitive to loud noises, and they scared it away with explosions and fireworks.

The origin of the Lunar New Year Festival can be traced back thousands of years, involving a series of colorful legends and traditions. One of the most famous legends is Nian, an extremely cruel and ferocious beast that the ancients believed would devour people on New Year’s Eve. To keep Nian away, red-paper couplets are pasted on doors, torches are lit, and firecrackers are set off throughout the night, because Nian is said to fear the color red, the light of fire, and loud noises. Early the next morning, as feelings of triumph and renewal fill the air at successfully keeping Nian away for another year, the most popular greeting heard is “gong xi fa cai”, or “congratulations.”

The Chinese New Year starts with the New Moon on the first day of the new year and ends on the full moon 15 days later. The 15th day of the new year is called the Lantern Festival, which is celebrated at night with lantern displays and children carrying lanterns in a parade.

The Reunion Dinner is held on New Year’s Eve where members of the family, near and far, get together for celebration. The New Year’s Eve dinner is very large and traditionally includes chicken. Fish is included, but not eaten up completely (and the remaining stored overnight), as the Chinese phrase “nian nian you yu”, or “every year there is fish/leftover”, is a homophone for phrases which could mean “be blessed every year” or “have profit every year”, since “yu” is also the pronunciation for “profit”.

New Year’s day is also celebrated within the family. Usually family members gather on the morning of New Year’s Day. It is at this gathering that red packets are given to unmarried members of the family. The age of the recipient is not material to receiving the packets. Married couples usually give out two red packets on the first new year after being married. This is because the wife presents one and the husband presents one. In subsequent years they may give one as a couple.

Red packets traditionally consisted of amounts which were considered multiples. Amounts like $2 (two piece of $1), or $20 were acceptable. Similarly “multiples” such as $1.10 and $2.20 were also acceptable. However, this is not strictly adhered to. The gift was originally a token amount but these days it is not uncommon to receive large sums in affluent families. In some families this tradition has evolved into the practice to substituting money-like instruments (stocks, bonds, unit trust) in place of large sums of cash.

Red packets are also given to unmarried visitors but the sums are often smaller than the packets given to family members or close friends.

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