Chinese New Year

What are the origins of Chinese New Year?

Unlike the Gregorian calendar, where New Year is on 1st January each year, the Lunar New Year is determined by the appearance of the new moon and can be on any date between late January and mid-February. In 2021, February 12th is the start of Chinese New Year and kick-starts 16 days of feasts, firecrackers and festivals. So when did this celebration begin and what symbol will represent the new year?

Origins

The Spring Festival, which is another name for Lunar New Year, can be traced back to the Shang Dynasty (1600–1046 BC). It is widely believed that the festival included sacrificial offerings to Gods and ancestors. By the Zhou Dynasty (1046–256 BC), the Chinese told stories of a lion-like beast, known as ‘Nian‘. According to folklore, Nian would rise from the sea and devour people and livestock, with only loud noises and the colour red returning it to the sea. Today, fireworks and the colour red feature heavily in the celebration of Chinese New Year. Also, lion dances, often featuring loud noises, show Nian being driven back into the sea.

A new year was decided, generally, when a new emperor took control or by according to both lunar phases and the solar solstices. It was only by the Han Dynasty (202 BC–AD 220) that yearly celebrations became fixed to the beginning of the new lunar cycle. Ever since, the Chinese calendar has been based on set according to a 12-moon cycle.

The early traditions of offering gifts, such as food and money, emphasised the importance of family in the Lunar celebrations. These offerings are expected to ensure a good new year and might even involve a little bribery. Red envelopes containing money are gifted during the Lunar New Year celebrations, a custom that goes back to these ancient times. 

Food

Food has always played a major role in Chinese culture, so it goes without saying that it should play a vital role at Chinese New Year. 

Sometimes called the 'new year cake', Nian Gao is a glutinous rice cake which is sweet in the Southern regions and savoury in the North. Gaol's loosely means 'Higher', so to signal a much better year (which won't be that difficult in 2021).

Fish dishes are eaten all over the country. The pronunciation of the word 'fish' is the same as 'leftover', signifying that you want the new year to offer you an abundance of wealth and food.

 

Jiaozi, or dumplings, are supposed to look like gold or pieces of silver and are also eaten to signify a wealthy new year. Other foods you are likely to see are citrus fruits, such as oranges and tangerines. The Chinese pronunciation for tangerine is similar to the word 'fortune' and are given at the end of the meal to relatives and friends.

Chinese signs of the zodiac

Every Lunar new year is aligned with one of the animals of the Chinese zodiac. The order was set by the Jade Emperor with 12 characters in total. 2021 will be the year of the Ox and it is thought that people born under these signs share similar traits. According to the Victoria and Albert Museum, traits of the Ox are; strong, reliable, fair and conscientious, inspiring confidence in others. They are also calm, patient, methodical and can be trusted. Although they say little they can be very opinionated. They believe strongly in themselves, but are also stubborn and hate to fail or be challenged. 

 

In order, the 12 symbols/characters are; rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and pig.