8 things you should know about Chinese New Year

group of people holding signs

Chinese New Year celebrations are about to start. As we live in an interconnected world, where the cultures spread and mix in different places, you do not have to be in Asia to join the festivities.

These eight facts will help you better understand what this big yearly festival is all about.

1. Chinese New Year’s date changes every year

Chinese New Year, also known as Lunar New Year or Spring Festival, is determined by Chinese lunisolar calendar which is based on the phases of the moon.

This means when converted to the Gregorian calendar we use in everyday life, the date of the Chinese New Year changes each year, but always falls between January 21 and February 20. Starting on January 25 2020 and ending on February 11 2021, 2020 is the year of the Rat.

2. 12 animals of the Chinese Zodiac

Unlike the Western astrology zodiac, where the specific signs are assigned to months, Chinese Zodiac has signs assigned to whole years. This means a different animal is associated with each Chinese year.

3. Decorations & symbols

Chinese New Year decorations are usually red as red is China’s lucky colour.

They’re abundant and exist in different forms, all of them having a meaning. Lanterns – hanging on the streets, building and trees – are there to drive off bad luck.

Door couplets come in pairs (this is where the name comes from) are placed on both side of the doors and contain good wishes.

The Chinese character Fu means good luck and happiness. Signs depicting this character are often placed upside down in the belief that in this way, the good fortune will descend down on their house.

Mandarine oranges or tangerines symbolise abundance and prosperity. These are not only used as a decoration, but also given as a gift to friends and family.

4. Red envelopes

Red envelopes or red packets contain money are given as gifts, traditionally to transfer wealth from the older to younger generations.

This means children and young people receive them from their parents, grandparents and other older and more established family members. But they can also be given to friends and employees. And similarly to other things going digital, the red envelopes now also exist in an electronic version.

5. Family reunions and street parades

Chinese New Year is a very long festivity, so there are various ways to celebrate.

Many people visit friends and family to share a meal and exchange gifts. Many people travel from far away (including abroad) for a family reunion, making the Chinese New Year the biggest human migration in the world. 

Additionally to family celebrations, street parades and open-air markets where people enjoy the festive atmosphere, buy food and flowers are very popular.

street scene showing a parade on a city street
A parade on the occasion of the Chinese New Year at Queen’s Road, Hong Kong, National Library of the Netherlands – Koninklijke Bibliotheek, In Copyright
dragon puppet on a city street with parade of people following and watching
Chinese New Year in the Nieuwmarkt neighbourhood, Amsterdam , Gerda van der Veen, National Library of the Netherlands – Koninklijke Bibliotheek, In Copyright

6. The dragon dance

The street celebrations include a popular performance of the dragon dance.

The dragon is a symbol of wisdom, power and good luck. Performing the dragon dance is believed to chase away the bad spirits and bring luck to the community.

7. Best wishes

When meeting someone during the Chinese New Year period, people wish each other luck, health and good fortune. Greeting cards – either paper or electronic – are sent to those who can’t be together during the festivities.

collage of 5 photographs of cards
Chinese New Year Cards, Museum Rotterdam, CC BY

8. Lucky numbers

We’re finishing this list with 8 and it’s for a reason.

In Chinese culture, numbers have special meanings. 8 is the lucky number, together with 6 and 9 while 4 is considered unlucky. Good to know when filling the red envelope!

By Aleksandra Strzelichowska, Europeana Foundation

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