In China, one of the most important times of the year is Chinese New Year. Long before recorded history began, it was said that the people of China lived a very difficult life that they loosely based around the lunar cycles. From their tracking of the moon, it was believed that around the same time each year a monster named Nián would descend on the village, wreaking havoc and destroying livestock and crops. To frighten away this terrible monster, the villagers would hang red lanterns and light firecrackers. This legend gave way to the traditions of Chinese New Year, where still today, fireworks and the color red are used to ward away evil spirits in honor of their ancestor’s courage.
Chinese New Year, more commonly known as Lunar New Year, is based around the Chinese zodiac calendar. Great importance is placed on the animal that symbolizes each year; it is said that the Jade Emperor ordered a race to determine which twelve would represent each year. The first twelve animals to arrive were the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and pig. This year, 2014, the zodiac falls on the Year of the Horse, marking a time of idealism and loyalty for the world and is also said to determine personality traits for all babies born this year.
Chinese New Year is still celebrated as a time to gather in preparation for a year of good fortune. Families gather to clean the home, organize, and create a clean slate for the coming year. Every detail, from what is eaten to the gifts given, carries meaning in the Chinese New Year celebration.
On the first day of the festival, tea is served first to the eldest generation and on to the youngest. Typically a fine pu-erh, black, or oolong tea is chosen as they are an important aspect of the ritual where well wishes are passed down, generation to generation. It is also customary for families to enjoy even more tea as they eat from the Tray of Togetherness. The Tray of Togetherness, also called the prosperity box, contains eight sweet or candied pieces that all represent good fortune. Children and unmarried villagers also receive red envelopes from elders and married villagers. These envelopes are circulated with greetings of prosperity and good fortune but never opened in the presence of the giver.
One of the most exciting and visually stunning practices during Chinese New Year is the Lantern Festival. The Lantern Festival marks the last day of the Chinese New Year celebration. People carry lanterns into the street under the full moon and crowds enjoy games and fireworks. The Dragon Dance is also an integral part of the festival; it is believed that the longer the dragon, the more luck will spread across the community.
From ancient Chinese legend to present day tradition, the Chinese New Year gives much to celebrate. We hope you participate in a piece of the tradition with your family this year. Cheers!