How much do you know about the Chinese New Year?

Last week, Reed celebrated the Lunar New Year. The Commons offered a Lunar New Year dinner consisting of traditional Asian cuisine. The International Student Services, in collaboration with Chinese eHouse, OSE, ISAB, and the Chinese department held a variety of activities including: fortune telling, mahjong, paper crafts, calligraphy, a Polaroid camera photo booth, and a live dragon dance. But what is the Lunar New Year? What is the Lunar Calendar? What is the Spring Festival? What are their relationships with the Chinese New Year? The answers to these questions are important for creating and nourishing a culturally aware community. 

Photo Courtesy of Sarvodaya Singh

The term ‘Lunar New Year’ is regarded as the equivalent word of the Chinese New Year when describing the Spring Festival. The Lunar New Year which is the generalization of these two terms, with the former having more inclusivity than the latter. Despite the good intention, the use of the term “Lunar” here could be misleading when one refers specifically to the dates of the Chinese New Year. This is because Lunar New Year identifies the Lunar Calendar as the official calendar when counting the dates of this festival. The lunar calendar is a calendar based on the monthly cycle of the moon’s phases, whereas the Chinese New Year is based on the Chinese Traditional Calendar (CTC), or Agricultural Calendar (农历Nó ng Lì), which the Spring Festival adopted. Nó ng Lì is a lunisolar calendar which identifies years, months, and days according to astronomical phenomena. Also, the CTC added the “Twenty-four Solar Terms” from the 干支历(Gān Zhī Calendar) made by ancient Chinese people, referring to the solar tropical year as the length of the year. Then, people set a leap month to make the average calendar year and tropical year comport to one another. Therefore, the CTC has elements that are from both the lunar and solar calendar calendars.

To clarify, the Spring Festival is a fourteen to fifteen days long festival(正月初一 Zhēng Yuè Chū yī to 正月十五Zhēng Yuè Shí Wǔ ) depending on the region, and the dates are different every year on the Gregorian calendar, but the same according to the Chinese Traditional Calendar. We focus on the Chinese New Year and its common-practiced traditions across regions. 

China is roughly divided into approximately two regions, the Northern part and Southern part, based on the Qinling Mountain-Huaihe River Line or Qinling-Huaihe Line. Even though a lot of the traditions and practices for the Spring Festival vary across the regions, the result of the large floating population and the ongoing internal migration in China has fostered the assimilation of sets of commonly practiced activities, with minor differences in things such as food and local performances. In the following section, we will provide a brief description of some common activities and the underlying beliefs. It is a snapshot of what the Spring Festival is like in China, how it is celebrated, and the cultural significance it carries.

Chuyi初一: The first day of the Chinese New Year.

Firecrackers, dumplings, family gatherings, and New Year Greetings of your family and friends. Most importantly, the red envelopes! You are supposed to wake up early and put on your new clothes to greet your family members, especially your elders, and get ready to receive those red envelopes that are filled with money! The belief behind the firecrackers is to ward off the mythical creature named Nian (‘year’) to keep the household safe.

Chuer初二: The second day of the Chinese New Year

Photo Courtesy of Sarvodaya Singh

Visiting your mother’s side of the family and spending the day with them. The daughters of the family are supposed to return to their homes on this day with their husbands and children, as well as bring gifts to give to other children at their mother’s households. The belief behind this can be traced back to ancient times when the New Year used to be the only time a girl could return to her original family. It has become a day for gathering of families.

Chuwu初五: The fifth day of the Chinese New Year:

The custom of “破五Pò Wù” on the fifth day is the traditional custom of “送年(Sòng Niàn)sending off the New Year”. From the first day to the fourth day of the Chinese New Year, people celebrate the Chinese New Year and strictly observe many etiquette taboos. After the fifth day of the first lunar month, all kinds of taboos are lifted and businesses from all walks of life open for business. Life slowly returns to its normal state, which is called “Po Wu”. The custom of welcoming the god of wealth also exists on the fifth day of the first lunar month. When shops open, drums and firecrackers are played in anticipation of brisk business in the New Year.

Shiwu十五: The last day of the Chinese New Year:

This is the day that we also call “The Lantern Festival”(元宵节 Yuan Xiao Festival), the most important traditional sub-festival during the Chinese New Year. On this day, people will eat Yuan Xiao or Tang Yuan depending on different regions. This kind of snack is round in shape, which symbolically represents the happy family reunions and the harmonious completeness of life. Yuan Xiao Festival is also known as the Lantern Festival because of the tradition of watching lanterns.

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