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Chinese New Year – Year of the Dragon 2012

Chinese New Year

Chinese New Year is the most important of the traditional Chinese holidays. In China, it is known as "Spring Festival," the literal translation of the Chinese name Chūn Jié (春節).

The festival begins on the first day of the first month in the traditional Chinese lunar calendar and ends with Lantern Festival which is on the 15th day. Chinese New Year's Eve, a day where Chinese families gather for their annual reunion dinner, is known as Chú Xī (除夕) or "Eve of the Passing Year." This year Chinese New Year begins January 23 and continues until February 6. Originating during the Shang Dynasty (16th - 11th century BC), Spring Festival, which celebrates family reunion, is full of rich and colorful activities, and new hopes with the advent of spring and flowers blossoming. People from different regions and different ethnic groups celebrate it in their unique ways.

Chinese New Year – Myth and Legends
According to tales and legends, the beginning of Chinese New Year started with the fight against a mythical beast called the Nian (年; pinyin: nián). Nian would come on the first day of New Year to eat livestock, crops, and even villagers, especially children. To protect themselves, the villagers would put food in front of their doors at the beginning of every year. It was believed that after the Nian ate the food they prepared, it wouldn’t attack any more people. One time, people saw that the Nian was scared away by a child wearing red. The villagers then understood that the Nian was afraid of the colour red. Hence, every time when the New Year was about to come, the villagers would hang red lanterns and red spring scrolls on windows and doors. People also used firecrackers to frighten away the Nian. From then on, Nian never came to the village again.

On the days immediately before the New Year celebration, Chinese families give their home a thorough cleaning. It is believed the cleaning sweeps away the bad luck of the preceding year and makes their homes ready for good luck. Brooms and dust pans are put away on the first day so that the newly arrived good luck cannot be swept away. Some people give their homes, doors and window-frames a new coat of red paint. Homes are often decorated with paper cutouts of Chinese auspicious phrases and couplets. Purchasing new clothing, shoes, and receiving a hair-cut also symbolize a fresh start.

The biggest event of any Chinese New Year's Eve is the dinner which consists of fish. This meal is comparable to Christmas dinner in the West. In northern China, it is customary to make dumplings (jiaozi 餃子) after dinner to eat around midnight. Dumplings symbolize wealth because their shape resembles a Chinese tael (currency).

By contrast, in the South, it is customary to make a glutinous New Year cake (Niangao, 年糕) and send pieces of it as gifts to relatives and friends in the coming days of the New Year. Niángāo [Pinyin] literally means "new year cake" with a homophonous meaning of "increasingly prosperous year in year out". After dinner, some families go to local temples hours before the New Year begins to pray for a prosperous new year by lighting the first incense of the year; however in modern practice, many households hold parties and even hold a countdown to the new year. Traditionally, firecrackers were once lit to scare away evil spirits with the household doors sealed, not to be reopened until the new morning in a ritual called "opening the door of fortune" (kāicáimén, 開財門).

Other Spring Festival Traditions

red envelopes

Red Envelopes

Traditionally, red envelopes or 'hóng bāo' (红包) are passed out during the Chinese New Year's celebrations from married couples or the elderly to unmarried juniors. It is also common for adults or young couples to give red packets to children. Red packets almost always contain money, usually varying from a couple of dollars to several hundred. The amount of money in the red packets should be of even numbers, as odd numbers are associated with cash given during funerals (帛金: Bai Jin). The number 8 is considered lucky (for it is  homophone for "wealth"), and $8 is commonly found in the red envelopes in the US. The number six (六, liù) is also very lucky as it sounds like 'smooth' (流, liú), in the sense of having a smooth year. Sometimes chocolate coins are found in the red packets. Odd and even numbers are determined by the first digit, rather than the last. Thirty and fifty, for example, are odd numbers, and are thus appropriate as funeral cash gifts. However, it is common and quite acceptable to have cash gifts in a red packet using a single bank note – with ten or fifty yuan bills used frequently.

Gift Exchange
In addition to red envelopes, which are usually given from elder to younger, small gifts (usually of food or sweets) are also exchanged between friends or relatives (of different households) during Chinese New Year. Gifts are usually brought when visiting friends or relatives at their homes. Common gifts include fruits (typically oranges, and never pears), cakes, biscuits, chocolates, candies, or some other small gift.

Markets or village fairs are set up as the New Year is approaching. These usually open-air markets feature New Year related products such as flowers, toys, clothing, and even fireworks. It is convenient for people to buy gifts for their new year visits as well as their home decoration. In some places, the practice of shopping for the perfect plum tree is not dissimilar to the Western tradition of buying a Christmas tree.

Bamboo stems filled with gunpowder that were burnt to create small explosions were once used in ancient China to drive away evil spirits. In modern times, this method has eventually 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. Each firecracker is rolled up in red papers, as red is auspicious, with gunpowder in its core. Once ignited, the firecracker lets out a loud popping noise and, as they are usually strung together by the hundreds, the firecrackers are known for their deafening explosions that are thought to scare away evil spirits. See also Myths above. The burning of firecrackers also signifies a joyful time of year and has become an integral aspect of Chinese New Year celebrations.

Chinese New Year

Dragon and Lion dance
Dragon and lion dances are common during Chinese New Year. It is believed that the loud beats of the drum and the deafening sounds of the cymbals together with the face of the dragon or lion dancing aggressively can evict bad or evil spirits. Lion dances are also popular for opening of businesses in Hong Kong and many Chinese communities.

Spring travel
Traditionally, families gather during the Chinese New Year. In modern China, migrant workers in China travel home to have reunion dinners with their families on Chinese New Year's Eve. Owing to the large number of interprovincial travellers, special arrangements were made by railways, buses and airlines starting from 15 days before the New Year’s Day. This 40-day period is called "chunyun" (simplified Chinese: 春运; traditional Chinese: 春運; pinyin: chūn yùn; literally "transportation during Spring Festival"), known as the world's largest annual migration.

The Chinese New Year is often accompanied by loud, enthusiastic greetings, often referred to as 吉祥話 (jíxiánghùa) , loosely translated as "auspicious" words or phrases. New Year couplets, printed on bright red paper, are another way of expressing auspicious New Year wishes. They probably predate the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), but didn't become widespread until then. Today, they are ubiquitous with Chinese New Year.

Some of the most common greetings include:

新年快乐 xīn nián kuài lè; A more contemporary greeting reflective of Western influences, it literally translates from the greeting "Happy New Year" more common in the west. But in northern parts of China, traditionally people say 过年好 guò nián hǎo to differentiate it from the international new year.

恭喜发财 gōng xǐ fā cái (Kung hei fat choi; Gung hei faat choi); which loosely translates to "Congratulations and be prosperous". It is often mistaken to be synonymous with "Happy New Year", but its usage dates back several centuries. While the first two words of this phrase had a much longer historical significance (legend has it that the congratulatory messages were traded for surviving the ravaging beast of Nian, in practical terms it may also have meant surviving the harsh winter conditions), the last two words were added later as ideas of capitalism and consumerism became more significant in Chinese societies around the world. The saying is now commonly heard in English speaking communities for greetings during Chinese New Year in parts of the world where there is a sizable Chinese-speaking community, including overseas Chinese communities that have been resident for several generations, relatively recent immigrants from Greater China, and those who are transit migrants (particularly students).

Numerous other greetings exist, some of which may be exclaimed out loud to no one in particular in specific situations. For example, as breaking objects during the New Year is considered inauspicious, one may then say 歲歲平安 (suì suì píng ān) immediately, which means "everlasting peace year after year". Suì (歲), meaning "age" is homophonous with 碎 (meaning "shatter"), in demonstration of the Chinese love for wordplay in auspicious phrases. Similarly, 年年有餘 (nián nián yǒu yú), a wish for surpluses and bountiful harvests every year, plays on the word yú that can also refer to 魚 (meaning fish), making it a catch phrase for fish-based Chinese new year dishes and for paintings or graphics of fish that are hung on walls or presented as gifts.

Chinese New Year Links

Note: The above material was adapted from the Wikipedia article Chinese New Year. The source material is available under a Creative Commons license.