Traditional Customs at Chinese New Year

Chinese New Year is the most important festival of the year. Chinese people may celebrate in slightly different ways, but their wishes are almost the same; they want their family members and friends to be healthy and lucky during the year ahead.

To this day, apart from the activities related to worshiping gods, which are played down, the major customs for Chinese New Year are well preserved and developed.

House Cleaning

In the days leading up to New Year, Chinese families clean their houses: sweeping the floor, washing clothes and other things, cleaning spiders’ webs and dredging ditches. These are very old customs dating back thousands of years .

It is traditionally believed that dust represents “old” things, so cleaning houses means doing away with the “old” and preparing for the “new”; with the intention of sweeping all the rotten luck from the previous year out the door . People do this willingly in the hope of a good year ahead.

House Decorations

  • New Year couplets: New Year couplets are usually posted in pairs, as even numbers are associated with good luck in Chinese culture.
  • Paper-cuts: People in northern China are used to posting paper-cuts on their windows, especially a large red Chinese character 福 (福 means good luck and fortune).

Couplets

Couplets, called chun lian (春联) in Chinese, are hung on gateposts or door panels on lunar New Years Eve. Dating from more than 1,000 years ago, the custom of pasting Spring Festival couplets started during the Song dynasty (960-1279 AD) and has flourished since the Ming dynasty (1368-1644 AD).

They mostly describe the bustling atmosphere during the festival and convey people’s best wishes for the New Year.

Structure:

  • Two antithetical sentences on either side of the door, read from top to bottom, with the first line starting from the right.
  • A horizontal scroll bearing an inscription, usually an auspicious phrase, above the gate or door.

Origin: At the very beginning, the couplets were called “tao fu” (桃符). People wrote the names of two gods who can control evil spirits on two pieces of peach wood, which can bring good luck and defeat evil spirits.

By the Song dynasty (960 -1279 A D ), “tao fu” was gradually replaced by two pieces of red paper and evolved into today’s couplets at Spring Festival.

Family Reunion Dinner

One of the most important events at Spring Festival, the feast on New Year’s Eve, also known as a family reunion dinner, is a must" banquet with all family members getting together; reflecting the importance of family in Chinese society.

The food chosen for dinner on New Year’s Eve is often quite exotic . A typical family reunion dinner on New Year’s Eve includes the following:

  • Fish: Fish in Chinese pronounced as “yú” (鱼), with the same pronunciation as the Chinese character “余” in the phrase of “年年有余” (may you always get more than you wish for), symbolizing surplus or success in Chinese culture.
  • Chicken: The significance of chicken is the same as that of fish. The pronunciation of chicken in Chinese (鸡ji) is a homophone for “吉ji”, meaning good luck.
  • New Year’s Cake (年糕): In southern China, the New Year’s Cake, mostly made of sticky rice and sugar, and some other ingredients according to personal taste , is also an important element of the dinner, the pronunciation of which is also a homophone for “年高” (higher and higher every year).
  • Dumplings (饺子): In northern China, dumplings are essential to the dinner on New Year’s Eve, for the shape of a dumpling resembles an ancient Chinese gold ingot. Housewives like to put a coin in one of the dumplings , and it is thought that whoever eats that particular dumpling will have a lucky and prosperous year.
  • Noodles: Many families eat noodles on New Year’s Eve because noodles represent longevity and long life.

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Waiting for the First Bell-Ringing of Chinese New Year

Chinese people like to go to a large square on New Year’s Eve where a huge bell is set to ring. As New Year approaches they count down and celebrate together. The people believe that the ringing of the huge bell can drive all bad luck away and bring good fortune.

In recent years, some people have begun going to mountain temples to wait for the first bell-ringing. Hanshan Temple in Suzhou is famous for its bell-ringing heralding Chinese New Year.

Staying up Late ("Shousui守岁")

Shousui means to stay up late or all night on New Year's Eve. After a great dinner, families sit together and chat happily to welcome arrival of the New Year.

Setting Off Firecrackers

Lighting firecrackers used to be an indispensable custom at Spring Festival, creating a lovely festive atmosphere.

  • In many major cities, however, the government has banned this practice, for it may bring unwelcome noise and danger.
  • In small towns and rural areas, as New Year’s Day arrives, towns light up with the glitter of fireworks, accompanied by deafening sounds. Families stay up for these joyful moments, and kids with firecrackers in one hand and lighters in another cheerfully express their happiness on this special occasion… though they need to plug their ears.

New Year Greetings (Bai Nian 拜年)

  • Traditionally: On the first day of the New Year or shortly thereafter, everyone greets relatives and friends by bowing and expressing gongxi (恭喜congratulations), wishing each other good luck and happiness in the New Year. It’s customary for the younger generation to visit their elders, to wish them health and longevity.
  • Today: In Chinese villages, some villagers may have dozens of relatives so they have to spend more than two weeks visiting their relatives. Nowadays some busy people will make New Year’s calls or send cards to express their good wishes, instead of paying a visit personally.

Lucky Money (also named Hong Bao 红包 or Red Envelopes)

What: This is money given to kids by their parents and grandparents as a New Year’s gift. The money is believed to bring good luck and ward off evil spirits.

Who:

  • Married couples or people of the older generation give money to unmarried people of younger generations.
  • Peers to unmarried colleagues and friends.
  • Some companies also give out “New Year’s beginning” red envelopes to employees.

Why: In ancient times, a demon called "祟su" came to harm sleeping children on New Year's Eve. By chance, a couple discovered that copper coins in red envelopes under the child’s pillow can scare evil spirits away.

More and more families used red envelopes containing copper coins to protect their children. Over the years, today’s red envelopes gradually emerged. That’s why the Chinese New Year envelopes are commonly referred to as Ya Sui Qian (压岁钱), which evolved from “压祟钱” (meaning ‘money to put pressure on Su’).

Significance: The color red symbolizes vitality, happiness and good luck in Chinese culture. It is impolite to open the envelope in front of the elders who gave it to you.