Chinese New Year, also known as Spring Festival, is the most important celebration of the year. It usually lasts 16 days, from New Year's Eve to the 15th day of the New Year – the Lantern Festival. (In 2020, the celebration starts on January 24th and ends on February 8th.)
Most Chinese people stop celebrating in their homes on the 7th day of New Year, because the national holiday usually ends around then.
Celebrations in public areas, however, can last until the 15th day of New Year. The following is a detailed introduction of the day-by-day celebratory activities of Chinese New Year.
The 23rd or 24th day of the last lunar month (“Xiǎo Nián” 小年)
The 23rd or 24th day of the last lunar month, or Little Year, also called “Xiao Nian” in Chinese, is the beginning of the whole Spring Festival celebration. There are two major activities: honoring the Kitchen God and cleaning houses.
Sweeping, cleaning, and discarding things that are no longer needed is a way to say goodbye to the old year. It’s also important to do because it’s believed that cleaning in the first days of the new year can deter good fortune.
Chinese New Year’s Eve: Family Reunion Dinners
With a history of 2,000 years or so, Chinese New Year’s Eve, which falls on the last day of the year according to the Chinese lunar calendar, is called “chú xī 除夕" in Chinese.
The reunion dinner every year has resulted in the world’s largest migration of people every year, so make your plans in advance!
What to Eat
In Western countries, typical holiday foods are turkey, ham, and rich foods like cakes and pies. Drinks include wine, champagne, mulled wine, and brandy.
Despite the many regional differences in culture and customs, most of China has similar beliefs concerning the New Year’s meal. New Year’s foods represent that which should come in the next year: fish, dumplings, rice cakes, and fruits – all represent wealth and prosperity.
Rice cakes in particular can represent a higher position or status. Sweet Rice Balls are eaten for family togetherness, and noodles are eaten for longevity. In Guangdong, lettuce, dried oysters, and pomelos are also foods that represent prosperity and whose names and sounds look auspicious in Cantonese. Check Chinese New Year Food to know more propitious dishes.
What to Do
On this day there are many different traditions.
- Prior to New Year’s Eve, people will clean and shop for decorations and snacks.
- Just prior to the Family Reunion Dinner, people will put up their New Year’s decorations and offer sacrifices of meat, wine, fruit, and incense sticks are placed on their ancestors’ shrines or graves.
- During and after the dinner, people will stay up late, watch the CCTV Gala, and give each other and children red envelopes (hóngbāo, 红包), full of lucky money - red is a color symbolizing good luck in China. Some people will go to large squares or even mountain-top temples to hear large bells ringing in the new year.
Day 1: Celebrating the Beginning of the Year
On the morning of the first day of Spring Festival, families first set off some firecrackers before going out, in order to drive away evil spirits.
In ancient times, the most important thing for Chinese on this day was to “Bài Nián” (拜年, to wish a happy New Year) – people paid visits to relatives, friends and neighbors, and to people of the older generations. Learn how to wish people a happy new year in Chinese.
But now, young people prefer to hang out for shopping, partying or singing karaoke, while the elders usually stay at home and exchange gossip with their neighbors.
In some township areas, people like to organize Spring Festival basketball games. The members in the teams include teenagers and the elders, which means there might be 16-year-old boys playing basketball with their dads.
Day 2: Welcoming Sons-in-Law
The second day of Chinese New Year is also known as “Kai Nian 开年” in Chinese, meaning the beginning of a year.
This is the day for welcoming sons-in-law, or visiting the wife’s side of the family. On this day, married daughters visit their parents’ homes with their husbands. Specific traditions vary from place-to-place in China, but usually, they bring gifts and red envelopes for the children in their family’s home. Daughters and sons-in-law will typically have lunch in their parents’ homes.
Day 3: Staying at Home
In old days, the third day of Chinese New Year was considered an ominous day, so people usually didn’t go out. There were many traditional taboos, such as cleaning the house, making a fire, having arguments, drawing water, visiting others, and so on.
With the progress of time, however, fewer and fewer people believe in such superstitions. More and more people just take this day as a normal holiday to have fun with their families.
Day 4: Welcoming the Gods
The fourth day, on the other hand, is considered an auspicious day: a day to welcome the Kitchen God, the God of Fortune, and other gods as they return from heaven to earth.
Families burn incense and light candles to welcome the gods. Families also prepare fruits, alcohol, and fish, chicken, and pork for their meals on this day.
In some rural areas in northern China, people light a stick on fire and throw it into a river, to avert any fire-related accidents in the year ahead.
Day 5: Festival of Po Wu
The fifth day is commonly known as the Festival of Po Wu (破五“Po” means ‘to break’). Many taboos can be broken on this day.
Origin: This day is believed to be the birthday of the God of Fortune, so people celebrate with a large banquet. The banquet will last all night, and is people will keep their doors and/or windows open as welcoming gesture towards the God of Fortune. They also let off firecrackers in an attempt to attract the attention of the God of Fortune, thus ensuring his favor and good fortune for themselves and their families year ahead.
Day 6: Driving Away the Ghost of Poverty
On the sixth day, people usually throw away their ragged clothes, rubbish and clean their homes,, hoping to drive away the ghost of poverty from the past and welcome a prosperous and successful new year.
According to legend, the Ghost of Poverty is a son of Emperor Zhuan Xu. He was short and weak, and liked wearing ragged clothes and eating poor-quality porridge.
Even when people presented him with new clothes, he would not wear them until he ripped them up or burned them. He was christened “The Man of Poverty”, and with time, he became the Ghost of Poverty.
Day 7: The Day of the Mankind
According to legend, the mother goddess Nu Wa created human beings on the seventh day, so the seventh day of the Chinese New Year is commonly referred to as “Ren Ri” (人日the Day of the Humans).
People in some regions eat Qi Bao Geng (七宝羹, a thick soup with seven kinds of vegetable) on this day to ward off misfortune and disease.
In some rural places of Shandong Province, people make torches with straw, light them and send them out of the village, to express their wish that there will no fire-related disasters in the year ahead.
Other celebrations include making paper cut outs in the shape of people, hiking, and writing poetry.
Day 8: Celebrating the Creation of Millet
The eighth day is believed to be the birthday of millet, an important crop in ancient China. According to folk proverbs, if this day is bright and clear, then the year will bring forth a good harvest; otherwise the year will suffer a poor harvest.
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Day 9: The Birthday of the Jade Emperor
The ninth day is the birthday of the Jade Emperor (玉皇大帝, the Supreme Deity of Taoism). According to Taoist legend, all the deities of heaven and earth celebrate this day., and there are grand ceremonies in Taoist temples.
- Setting off firecrackers continuously from midnight of the eighth day of Chinese New Year to 4 o’clock AM of the 9th day.
- Offering sacrificesto the Jade Emperor, before which the whole family will first take a shower as a sign of respect to the Emperor.
Day 10: The Birthday of the God of Stone
The tenth day is the birthday of the god of stone. On this day, it is forbidden to move any stone, including stone rollers, stone mills and stone mortars, so it is also known as “Shi Bu Dong”(石不动, meaning ‘do not move any stone’).
In addition, it is also forbidden to cut into mountain rock or to build a house with rocks, or bad things will happen to their crops. On this day, families burn incense and candles to honor stone, and offer pancakes to the god of stone.
Day 11: Fathers and Sons-in-Law
The eleventh day is for fathers-in-law to entertain their sons-in-law. There is a lot of food left over from celebrating the birthday of the Jade Emperor, so the leftover food is eaten on this day.
Celebration: In Binyang County, Guangxi, this day is “Pao Long Jie” (炮龙节the Dragon Dance Festival). The dancing dragon in Binyang County is larger than those in other places.
At about 40 meters, the shorter dragons are enormous, and the dance is accompanied with firecrackers.
Day 12-14: Preparing for the Lantern Festival
Families buy lanterns and build a lantern shack to prepare for the Lantern Festival.
Day 15: Celebration of the Lantern Festival
On this day, people light lanterns and send them off.
In a tradition dating back to the Song dynasty, people will write poem riddles on lanterns, and those who can solve them will sometimes receive prizes from the owners of the lanterns.
The lantern time was a special time when unmarried young men and women could meet. People eat rice balls with fillings to celebrate and usher in a prosperous and lucky new year.
See more about Lantern Festival.
Spend a New Year in China
Spring Festival is the most important celebration of the year to nearly all Chinese people. During the festival, people use the color red, representing good luck, to show their happiness.
If you join in the Best of China and Karst Landscape Tour during the Spring Festival period, you will see the streets filled with lanterns and Spring Festival rhymes and riddles.
- In Beijing, whether in the Forbidden City or the hutongs, you can feel the New Year’s happy atmosphere, especially when talking to locals.
- In Xi’an, the Ancient City Wall has hordes of hanging red lanterns.
- In Guilin and Yangshuo, you will see tourist attractions decorated with lucky ornaments.
- And in Shanghai, festival decorations can be found even on computer and phone screens.
The Chinese New Year is the biggest, most festive holiday in China, from jungle-covered mountains to modern metropolises to ancient cities, the New Year Brings all of China together, seeing it for yourself is an unforgettable experience.