Happy New Year! “Wait,” we can hear some of you saying. “I thought New Year’s was a month ago?” In this case, you’d be right. But, today, February 5, 2019, is Chinese New Year, when followers of the traditional Chinese calendar celebrate the start of the Year of the Pig. The 12th and final animal of the Chinese zodiac, the pig is a symbol of wealth, good fortune, and general prosperity. Thus, anyone born in the Year of the Pig is seen as fortunate, as well as energetic and enthusiastic.

Also known as the Spring Festival, the Chinese calendar follows a new lunisolar rotation — paying attention to both lunar and solar movements, unlike the Gregorian calendar used in the United States and Europe which is based on the sun. This is why the date of Chinese New Year isn’t the same day each year. The Chinse New Year is a multiday event, with traditional foods, activities, and celebrations of this thousands-year-old festival. Here’s how you can join the just under five million Chinese-Americans and immigrants ready to celebrate their new year!

Learn About the Chinese New Year and the Spring Festival

The History Behind Chinese New Year

The origins of the Chinese New Year can be traced back to ancient times, when the Chinese calendar largely circled around the farming cycle of the seasons. It wasn’t until the Han Dynasty’s Emperor Wudi that the festival’s date was set to the first day of the first month of the lunar calendar. Over the centuries, many of the traditions would spring up to become the celebrations we know today and make it China’s most important holiday.

The Legend of the Monster Nian

One legend surrounding the Chinese New Year that explains many of the beliefs connected with it is the legend of the monster Nian, or year. The Nian was a terrible beast with the body of an ox and the head of a lion that lived in the sea. On New Year’s Eve, the Nian would come to do evil to people, their homes, and their animals until the people of China discovered that the Nian was terrified of the color red, fire, and loud noises. Scaring away the Nian became central to the New Year’s traditions, leading to the bright-red decorations, the lanterns, and the fireworks we see today.

The Great Zodiac Race

The other legend surrounding Chinese New Year is that of the zodiac. The Chinese zodiac is familiar with many in the West, but for the uninitiated, the Chinese zodiac is based on years, not cycles of days or months like the Western zodiac. The Chinese zodiac is a 12-year cycle, each with a corresponding animal that is believed to impart certain character traits. The short version of the legend explaining this is that the king of the gods in Chinese mythology, the Jade Emperor, hosted a race, sometimes a party, to decide which animals appear on the zodiac and in which order. Each animal reached the finish line in their own way, explaining the order of the zodiac and why some animals are the way they are today.

Luck and Good Fortune

Many of the traditions surrounding Chinese New Year have to do with luck and good fortune for the coming year. For example, prior to the Spring Festival, celebrants clean thoroughly to sweep away the bad luck. Once the celebrations begin, however, cleaning stops until the fifth day of the festival. This is to prevent washing away the good luck! Other taboos focus around avoiding negativity to prevent that negativity from following you the whole year! At the same time, symbols of happiness and good fortune, or fu, are used in decorations in the hopes that good luck will be a constant companion in the new year.

Cook Traditional Meals to Celebrate Chinese Culture

Food is central to almost any holiday, because humans like to celebrate with food. Chinese New Year is no different, with a family reunion dinner acting as the centerpiece for many celebrations. Much like the decorations, the foods served throughout the Spring Festival are symbolically focused on good luck in the new year.

Dumplings for Good Fortune

Dumplings are perhaps the most connected to Chinese New Year, all thanks to a pun. The Chinese word for dumplings (jiǎo zi) sounds similar to jiāo zi, which roughly translates to “exchange” (jiāo) and “the midnight hours” (zi). This makes eating dumplings at celebrating the coming new year an exchange of years during the midnight hours. Dumplings are made together, as a family, and a coin will often be hidden in one of the dumplings. Whoever gets the dumpling with the coin will have good luck throughout the year!

Other Traditional Foods

Other popular dishes at Chinese New Year are steamed fish, longevity noodles, and desserts. In Chinese, fish is a homophone for the word surplus and has become a symbol of wealth and prosperity. Longevity noodles are eaten to symbolize good health and long life, meaning you shouldn’t cut or chew the noodles, or you risk shortening your longevity! Desserts, like the nian gao (New Year cake) are rice cakes that vary greatly between different regions, among other desserts like fa gao, turnip cake, and rice balls.

To learn more about traditional Chinese New Year dishes, check out Getting Creative with Comfort Food: Traditional Chinese New Year Dishes!

Attend an Event or Celebrate at Home

Finally, you can celebrate Chinese New Year by finding a local event or by making one yourself at home! The largest celebration outside of Asia is held each year in San Francisco, so if you’re up for the trip or in the area, it’s worth checking out. This isn’t the only large celebration, though. In fact, many large cities with a Chinatown district, like New York, will hold events or parades where dragons and lions dance among bright decorations and fireworks.

You can also bring the celebrations to you. Decorating your home is a fantastic way to celebrate and make your house or apartment festive. As mentioned, the color red is central to decorations. You can also make good luck banners that are simple and inexpensive to create at home. Additionally, you can make paper “firecrackers” to represent the fireworks that are so popular during Chinese New Year.

Another craft you can make is a Spring Festival lantern, which is part of the 15th, final, and most important day of Chinese New Year — the Lantern Festival. Finally, you can make and share Chinese red envelopes, which are usually given to kids and contain a small amount of money. This is seen as a way to share good fortune and luck and ward off evil spirits.

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Chinese New Year is an incredibly important holiday for people from China, including Chinese-Americans, and their loved ones. It’s a chance for us to celebrate a large population group of the United States’ cultural heritage and history in fun and delicious ways. To everyone celebrating the Spring Festival today, Guo Nian Hao (Happy New Year)!

Further Reading

Chinese American Family — How to Celebrate Chinese New Year
Chinese New Year 2019 — 21 Things You Didn’t Know About Chinese New Year