The History of Chinese New Year
by Cara Alscher
This year, February 8th marks the turn of the lunar Chinese calendar. Chinese New Year falls on a different day each year, with its commencement depending on when the second new moon after the winter solstice occurs. Also known as the “Spring Festival,” this fifteen-day-long holiday is celebrated by Chinese communities worldwide. Chinese New Year is one of the grandest cultural celebrations in history and in the present day. The vibrant traditions have been carried on from generation to generation, with no magic nor passion ever lost.
Ironically, the festival was derived from fear. An ancient legend about the celebration’s origins tells a story of a mythical monster who terrorizes villagers. The lion-esque beast is named Nian, the Chinese word for “year.” Villagers would make loud noises with firecrackers and drumbeats to ward off the monster, in addition to hanging red lanterns and scrolls on their doors. The color red is imperative, as Nian is believed to be scared of its vibrancy. From then on, the “passing of Nian” became synonymous with celebrating the passing of a year. The survival rituals in the story became staples in the Chinese traditions.
During the spirited fifteen days, firecrackers pierce their way through the air, and lanterns glow in vivid red hues. Children are gifted with red envelopes of money, and dragon dances sweep the nation. The Lantern Festival brings a bright end to the New Year celebration when, all across Asia, colorful lanterns are lit and released into the night sky.
One of the most commonly known aspects of Chinese New Year is the concept of animal naming. The twelve zodiac animals compose a rotation, with one animal ruling over each New Year. 2016 is the year of the Red Monkey, which is said to be the most competitive and determined of all the animals. The Chinese believe that the animal that rules the year has a profound influence on the year’s outcomes. When I was younger, my grandmother often told me a story about a race between the zodiac animals. The “Great Race” determined the characteristics of the zodiac animals and what types of people will be born during each year.
I remember the first time I celebrated New Year with the Chinese side of my family. Being half Asian, I had the best of both worlds. I got to experience the vibrancy and passion with which the Chinese celebrate their Lunar Year’s commencement and also got to upstage my fellow kindergardeners in the typical elementary debate of “Gung Hay Fat Choy” vs. “Gong Xi Fa Cai.” The energy of the celebrations was inspiring to my five-year-old self, and eleven years later, my amazement has not faltered.
As the lanterns are hanged and the red packets are distributed, think of the vibrancy of Chinese culture and how it has celebrated the New Year all the way to the present. Ancient legends and history set the tone for the festivities on February 8th, and it is our job as a global community to keep the lanterns floating.