What Is the Chinese New Year?

Instructor: Jason McCollom
Based on the ancient Chinese lunar calendar, the Chinese New Year (or Spring Festival) is the most significant social and cultural event of the year. Read about the history of the Chinese New Year and how it is celebrated today.

What is the Chinese New Year?

It's that time of year again. You, along with a billion other Chinese, are scrambling to make it across the country to visit your family and friends. You wait in endless lines to get on subways and airplanes, and cram together with thousands of others on the streets and sidewalks of every Chinese city. With hundreds of millions of people traveling at the same time during the week-long Chinese New Year celebration, it can be a frustrating and tiring journey.

But it's all worth it when you arrive and spend time with your family. Everyone eats traditional foods, gives gifts, and attends festivals, parades, and fireworks displays. Though contemporary Chinese New Year celebrations can be made difficult by the sheer numbers of people traveling during the week, it has behind it thousands of years of history and plays a significant role in Chinese society and culture.

The Chinese New Year is a celebration of the start of the new year according to the ancient Chinese calendar. The Chinese calendar is based on the phases of the moon. The festival begins on the second new moon following the winter solstice and ends 15 days later. Depending on a particular year's lunar calendar, the Chinese New Year celebration usually spans a period in January and February. The holiday is the most important social event in China, and hundreds of millions celebrate it by visiting friends and family, sharing gifts, eating traditional meals, and going to festivals.

A dragon walk during the Chinese New Year
dragon walk chinese new year

History of the Chinese New Year

Thousands of years ago the Chinese created a lunar-based calendar, based on moon phases and other aspects of the movement of the sun. This was important for the ancient Chinese because as lunar and solar conditions changed over the course of the earth's rotation around the sun, agriculture had to constantly adapt. During these phases of the moon and sun--what became the Chinese New Year--the Chinese paid homage to their gods in the hopes of a good harvest.

Each Chinese New Year is also shaped by the Chinese zodiac. This is the cycle of the 12 signs along the solar path. In other words, every new year has a theme related to one of the 12 zodiacal animals. Every year is the Year of the Rat, or Ox, or Tiger, or Rabbit, or Dragon, or Snake, or Horse, or Sheep, or Monkey, or Rooster, or Dog, or Pig. And every 12 years it starts over again.

At the start of every new year, people across China came to celebrate. Business and government halted and family and home became most important. Families cleaned their homes to banish evil spirits and bad luck, and worked to appease deities. Food was had and paper icons were ritually sacrificed to the gods and to ancestors. Family feasts became the center of the Chinese New Year revelry.

The Contemporary Chinese New Year Celebration

With the 20th century, the Chinese New Year became referred to as the Spring Festival, and is known as such today. Workers are given a vacation and millions take this time to travel to see family and friends. They feast with traditional foods such as dumplings, noodle dishes, and rice pastries.

During the new year, people feast on traditional pastries such as this one, called fa gao
fa gao

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