Millions of Chinese celebrate Chinese New Year around the world each year with family gatherings, festive shopping, street parades and firecrackers to welcome the new year. Through the efforts of various Chinese associations, government bodies and Chinese migrants around the world, this important occasion in the lunar calender is growing more popular with local communities and tourists who flock to various Chinatowns to join in the festivities and enjoy the unique sights and sounds that accompany the Chinese New Year.
Chinese New Year parade in Canada / Photo by scazon of Flickr
In the US, President Barack Obama sent best wishes to Americans of Asian descent and California Governor Jerry Brown recognized the "important contributions" Chinese Americans have made to his state. Prime Minister David Cameron also paid tribute to the enormous contribution the Chinese community in the UK. In Canada, the Canada Post created a new stamp to commemorate the 2011 Chinese New Year. The Chinese New Year is one of the biggest cultural events in Australia.
This is also a period when traditional customs and superstitions are adhered to usher in the good luck of the year and avoid any misfortune, including little things you should and should not do.
With the number 18 being a Chinese lucky number due to its homophone for "certain fortune", here are 18 facts about the Chinese New Year to help you better enjoy the festivities wherever you are.
Chinese New Year decorations in Malacca, Malaysia / Photo by AmazingMelaka.com of Flickr
1) It is the longest and most important festival for Chinese all over the world. It is a major 15-day celebration and public holiday in countries like China, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Philippines. It is also celebrated by the Chinese communities and Chinatowns all over the world.
Chinese New Year celebrations in London's Chinatown / Photo by Lebara Mobile of Flickr
2) The origin of the Chinese New Year is centuries old and is based on people's defense against a mythical beast called the Nian [年] using food, firecrackers and the colour red.
3) It is celebrated worldwide to mark the 1st day of the lunar calender. It is also known as the Spring Festival [春節] in China as the start of the lunar calender is also the Spring season. The date of the New Year, according to the Western calendar, varies between 21st January and 19th February every year. In 2012, it fell on 23rd January and is occurs on 10th February in 2013.
Different dishes from a Hainanese family reunion dinner
4) Like Christmas, the Chinese New Year is a family festival. It starts on the eve of the New Year when Chinese families gather for an annual reunion dinner [除夕] to mark the eve of the passing year with family members from near and far. All children will gather at their parent's home for the dinner and I look forward to catching up with mine then.
Glutinous cake popular with Chinese from Southern China
Mandarin oranges and pomelo symbolising good luck and fertility
5) Food offered are especially symbolic of happiness, prosperity, luck, fertility and long life during the Chinese New Year. Fish [魚] which sounds like "excess" or "surplus" in Mandarin is featured in all meals. Prosperity is also symbolised by oranges and black moss seaweed. Chicken and prawns are for happiness, pomelos represent fertility, and noodles are for long life. In China, dumplings [餃子] that are shaped like the ancient tael is customary in the north while a glutinous cake made of brown sugar [年糕] is popular in the south. Symbolic foods are also presented in ancestral and temple prayers during the festive period.
Food symbolic good luck, prosperity and fertility are presented for worship rites in China
6) Lion and dragon dances are common during the Chinese New Year due to their association with the origin of the festival, where it is believed that the loud drumming and clashing of cymbals will chase away bad luck and evil spirits.
During the festive period, lion dance troupes are invited by merchant associations, shops, offices and homes to perform the traditional dance of "picking the fortune" [採青] which involves the "lion" eating green lettuces and oranges and arranging them into auspicious Chinese characters. The dance is believed to bring good luck and fortune to the customer and the troupe is rewarded with a red packet.
Mandarin oranges are peeled and arranged into auspicious Chinese words
The lion dance is sometimes accompanied by a dragon dance which features sinuous movements of a long dragon held up by several performers. The dragon dance is a highlight of many Chinese New Year street parades especially in the Chinatowns around the world.
Dragon dance in Sydney's Chinatown / Photo by Kayhadrin of Flickr
Not far behind is a usually a man costumed in the likeness of the God of Prosperity [財神] offering spectators gold-foil chocolate coins as symbols of good fortune and wealth in the new year.
7) It is based on cycles of the moon. Unlike the Western Gregorian calendar, the lunar calendar (traditionally referenced by Chinese all over the world) has 6 "shorter" months of 29 days and 6 "longer" months of 30 days, totaling 354 days. Every 3 years there is An extra lunar month called rùnyuè [闰月] occurs every 3 years that brings the lunar calendar into line with the solar calendar. The lunar calendar is the oldest known calender dating back to 2600 B.C.
8) The lunar calender is also associated with the Chinese zodiac and has 12 different animals for each of the 12 lunar years in the cycle including the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and pig. 2012 was the year of the dragon and 2013 will be the year of the snake.
9) Some Chinese believe you should not be washing your hair on the 1st day of the Chinese New Year as you would be washing away your good luck for the new year.
Chinese New Year market in Beijing / Photo by DanForys of Flickr
10) Festival markets are commonly set up several weeks prior to the Chinese New Year Day. These open-air or in-mall day and night markets usually feature a familiar range of new year related products including home decorations, costumes, pastries, toys, flowers and food. For many Chinese populations, these markets are often part of the families' day or night out, and tourist attractions.
11) The Kitchen God [灶神] plays an important role for Chinese families prior to the Chinese New Year. His mission is the report the activities of each household to the head of the celestial plethora, the Jade Emperor. To ensure the Kitchen God say positive things about the family, they put honey or sweet glutinous rice on the lips of the effigy.
Paper cutouts of Chinese characters that represent good tidings
12) To ensure you're not ridden with debt in the new year, the Chinese believe that all outstanding bills and monies owed to friends and family members should be squared off before the Chinese New Year.
13) Chinese characters that connote good fortune, luck and happiness are commonly seen as decorations on doors and in homes. The most popular character is the word "fortune" [福]. It is hung upside down to symbolise the arrival of blessings.
Spring couplets or pairs of sayings or poems that offer good wishes are usually hung on either side of a doorway and painted in black or gold on red paper. Many homes will be decorated with paper cutouts of the Chinese characters, animals and flowers for happiness, wealth and longevity.
14) You should tidy up the home prior to the festive period to sweep away any misfortune and make way for good luck in the coming year. However remember not to sweep or clean your home on the 1st day of the Chinese New Year as it symbolises the sweeping away of all your wealth and good fortune for the year.
15) The Chinese believe that crying and wailing on the 1st day of the Chinese New Year will result in sad times for the remainder of the year. It is also poor form to start the new year by swearing, getting upset or blowing your top.
16) Red [紅] is the predominant and auspicious colour of the Chinese New Year. It symbolises fortune, good luck and joy. In addition to the red packets or envelops, it is the most commonly worn colour of new clothes throughout the Chinese New Year period. White or black clothing are often avoided as they represent the traditional colours of mourning for Chinese.
Red packets for sale in Hong Kong / Photo by msmccomb of Flickr
17) Red packets or envelops [红包] containing money are customary during this festive period and handed out by elders and married couples to single adults and children. The amounts of money vary depending on the giver but custom dictates that the amount should be of even numbers, with the most popular being number 8 for its homophone for "wealth".
Fireworks of all sizes for sale in Hainan Island, China
18) Firecrackers used to be a central feature of the Chinese New Year among many Chinese populations. The traditional firecracker is rolled in red papers and strung together in large numbers. The objective is to create deafening explosions when ignited to scare away evil spirits. The burning of firecrackers also signifies joy and happiness. Unfortunately the use of firecrackers by the public has been banned in most countries celebrating the festival except in rural China and selected urban locations.
Firecrackers at a Chinese New Year parade in the US / Photo by Graffiti Photographic
Controlled firing of firecrackers are still organised by authorities as part of the Chinatown Chinese New Year celebrations in countries like Australia, US, Canada, UK and the Netherlands. In Hong Kong and Singapore, firework displays similar to those for New Year Eve are also organised to herald in the Chinese New Year.