Fun Facts: Chinese New Year

This Sunday (February 10) is the most important holiday in the Chinese calendar - The Chinese New Year.  This special celebration happens on a slightly different day every year, because China uses a "lunisolar" calendar, which is different from the Gregorian calendar used by most western countries.

What is a Lunisolar Calendar?

A lunisolar calendar uses both the phases of the moon, and the earth's orbit around the sun, to tell which day of the year it is. Some lunisolar calendars are based on which season it is, and some are based on where the full moon appears each month in relation to the stars.

Most years in the Chinese calendar have 12 months, though every second or third year will have 13 months. This is because 12 lunar months (28 days each, from full moon to full moon) do not fit neatly into a whole solar year (the time it takes the earth to go around the sun).

The Chinese calendar also doesn't number years, and rather names them in a cycle of twelve. 2012 was the Year of the Dragon, while 2013, which starts on Sunday, will be the Year of the Snake.

What Happens on Chinese New Year?

Chinese New Year is celebrated for eight days before and fifteen days after the actual date, and involves many traditional activities. On the eighth day before New Year, a traditional porridge known as làbāzhōu is served. Most families will then use this time to give their houses a really good cleaning. This is meant to clear away the old year's misfortune and to make room for good luck.

On New Year's Eve, a large family meal is eaten, which varies from region to region. Traditional families will go to a temple to pray and to light the first incense of the year, but many families now simply hold a New Years party and set off firecrackers.

After New Year's Eve there are different traditional activities performed on each day:

First Day: Celebrations are held to welcome the deities of the heavens and the earth. Firecrackers are set off, traditionally to make as much noise as possible to chase away the evil spirit, nian.

photo by Candida DaFonseca
Chinese New Year is a great reason to try new foods!

Second Day: On the second day, married daughters visit their parents' families and relatives.

Third Day: This is the day when rural villagers traditionally burn paper offerings. It is considered unlucky to receive guests or to visit people.

Fourth Day: On this day many business activities return to normal, and corporate "Spring Dinners" are held.

Fifth Day: This is the God of Wealth's birthday. People eat crackers or dumplings, and set off firecrackers in an effort to attract the god's attention.

Seventh Day: This is called the "common man's birthday", and is the day when everyone is considered to have grown a full year older.

Eighth Day: A large family dinner is held to celebrate the eve of the birth of the Jade Emperor, but most people are already back at work. Offerings are made to Zao Jun, the God of the Kitchen, who reports to the Jade Emperor on the family's behavior during the year.

Ninth Day: On the ninth day people offer prayers to the Jade Emperor of Heaven, as it is traditionally the birthday of the Jade Emperor.

Thirteenth Day: After 12 days of festivities, people will often cleanse themselves by eating purely vegetarian food. The day is dedicated to Guan Yu, the Chinese god of War, who is also associated with success and wealth as he won over 100 battles in his lifetime.

Fifteenth Day: On the last day of celebrations, a sweet rice ball brewed in soup is eaten, and candles are lit outside houses to guide wayward spirits home. In Malaysia and Singapore this day is treated as a kind of Valentine's Day.

There's a lot more to Chinese New Year than we can fit in a single blog post, and lots of different countries celebrate it differently. If you study or work with anyone from China, be sure to wish them a Happy New Year this weekend!

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