Chinese New Year History and Customs

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Chinese New Year Festival

Chinese New Year Festival (photo by Flickr user Paul)

The Chinese New Year, also known as the Lunar New Year or Spring Festival, dates back to Shang Dynasty (1766 BCE-1122 BCE). Just about every subsequent dynasty put their own spin on the celebration. The Han Dynasty (206 BCE-9 CE) added an early version of fireworks by burning dried bamboo. When the bamboo is set on fire its core expands causing the stick to explode open with a loud pop. The Tang Dynasty (618 CE-907 CE) added the red lanterns, which are still part of the celebration.

Chinese New Year Traditions

New Year’s Eve dinner with family is one of the biggest traditions of this holiday. It is so big that it causes over 3 billion people to travel just prior to the New Year in China. The New Year’s travel rush begins almost 14 days before New Year’s eve to allow all the transit systems to move all these people. When that is compared to the 48.7 million Americans that traveled to be with family this past Thanksgiving (measured over a 5 day period), it makes our crowded roads and lines at airport security seem empty.

Once every one makes it to dinner, a feast is served that includes a whole chicken or fish (including head, tail, feet or fins) as they symbolize prosperity and completeness, noodles, dumplings, and Niangao. Each family will have different spins on these dishes based off of which region of China they are from. Tea is served and brought as gifts for other family members and for the alter that is setup for deceased family members to honor them.

The family stays up after dinner and watches fireworks that are set off at midnight. Everyone is to stay up all night and all lights are to remain on in the house until the sun rises. After sunrise, gifts are exchanged, which are usually red envelopes with money as they symbolize prosperity and wealth for the new year. Firecrackers may be set off as they are to scare off the “Nian”, a monster that arrives at the New Year who brings bad luck. Red is worn through out the New Year celebration since it is the color of luck. Black is avoided as it is the color of death.

Chinese New Year Around the World

Due to the world increasingly getting smaller, there are many celebrations for the Lunar New Year around the world. In fact, the largest celebration of the Lunar New Year outside of China occurs in San Francisco. If you cannot make it there, Washington DC has a Chinese New Year parade as well as many other large American cities.  So join in the celebrations!

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