We already know that China is a country full of ancient traditions, but perhaps you’re curious as to why the Chinese celebrate their New Year on a different date to the rest of the world.
The reason is that it wasn’t until the early 20th century that China adopted the Gregorian Calendar, the one currently used in Western countries and predominantly around the world. Up until then, the Chinese relied solely on their agricultural calendar, also known as the Lunar Calendar, or the Traditional Calendar. Developed between 771 and 476 BC, it is based on lunar months, a concept where every month starts at the new moon.
Red lanterns for the Spring Festival decorations. Needless to say, red is the nation’s favourite colour in China.
Since the Chinese calendar defines the lunar month containing the winter solstice (the coldest time of the year) as the 11th month, the Chinese New Year usually falls on the second new moon after the winter solstice. For that reason, the Chinese New Year is also known as the Spring Festival, which marks the end of the colder days and welcomes spring and all that comes with it, including planting, harvests, and the idea of a fresh start.
Lantern decorations adorned with the characters “Spring Festival”
There’s no set date for the Chinese New Year. This year, the 15-day holiday (the longest in the world) began on Saturday 25th January, and will be ending on Saturday 8th February, according to the Gregorian calendar. The preparations for the big event, however, started 8 days earlier on Friday 17th January (23rd December in the Lunar Calendar), on a day that is called Little Year.
Every year, the Spring Festival is also responsible for the largest human migration in the world, as people all over China travel to their hometowns and Chinese citizens living abroad make the trip back home to celebrate with their nearest and dearest.
The New Year’s Eve celebrations, which this year were held on Friday 24th January (30th December in the Lunar Calendar), centre around a reunion dinner; a feast of everyone’s favourites and specialties, and widely regarded as the most important meal of the year. After dinner, the children receive red envelopes with money inside and the family then stay up late watching the fireworks as they wait to usher in the New Year.
The money given in red envelopes is supposed to help transfer fortune from the older relatives to the children, although they can also be shared between bosses and employees, co-workers, and friends.
The Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) is also a time where most Chinese people eat dumplings for nearly every meal. Even those who are not so fond of the traditional dish will at least have it either for their New Year’s Eve meal or as their first breakfast of the year.
Dumplings can come in many shapes and forms (even coloured!) and, depending on the region, you will find preferences for sweet dumplings over savoury ones, and vice-versa.
However, contrary to popular belief, dumplings aren't as common everywhere in China, owing to the fact that they are more of a Northern tradition. In the South, it’s more likely that people will eat spring rolls and tangyuan, a dessert made of glutinous rice and shaped into balls.
The year of the Rat
Just like in Western culture, there are 12 zodiac signs in China, although according to Chinese tradition, the animal represents the entire year. This year will be the year of the Rat, which is the first of all zodiac animals. In Chinese culture, rats have been seen as a sign of wealth and surplus and, due to their rapid reproduction rate, married couples would also pray to them for children.
Some of the animals (including the rat, snake, dog and pig) aren’t usually well-liked in China, but as a zodiac, their positive traits are bestowed upon people born in their respective years. According to tradition, your animal can decide your career, health and relationship success, so make sure you find out which zodiac animal you are!
The Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) was originally a ceremonial day to pray to the gods for a good planting and harvest season; as an agrarian society, the harvest was essential to the Chinese. This time of the year was also a time where they prayed to their ancestors, who were treated similarly to gods.
Despite its name, the Chinese New Year is not only celebrated in China. It is celebrated all around the world in regions and countries with significant Chinese populations, including Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, the Philippines, and Mauritius, not to mention North America and across Europe.
Dancers performing a Chinese dragon dance in Trafalgar Square, London, 2020
The Chinese New Year in London is one of the largest events outside Asia and attracts hundreds of thousands of people each year. Celebrations in London are organised by the London Chinatown Chinese Association (LCCA), and feature the vibrant Chinese New Year London parade and a one-day festival at Trafalgar Square, as well as other attractions in Chinatown and the West End. For more information on the Chinese New Year in London, go to the dedicated Visit London page here.
The traditional Chinese dragon parade in London’s West End
Xin Nian Kuai Le (新年快乐)
This Mandarin phrase literally means “Happy New Year”, although it’s more common to hear “congratulations on the fortune”, which is “kung hei fat choy” (恭喜發財) in Hong Kong and other Cantonese-speaking regions, and “gong xi fa cai” (恭喜发财), in Mandarin.
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