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5 key questions about Chinese New Year — answered!

Christmas might be the most important holiday in Germany, but in China, it’s the Chinese New Year. Commonly known as ‘chun jie’ (Spring Festival), it marks the arrival of spring, which signifies new beginnings. 

1. When is Chinese New Year celebrated?

So important is this day to the Chinese that the days leading up to it is also said to be the largest annual human migration in the world, as billions of Chinese travel across the country to make their way home for the festivities. That said, let us get you up to speed with the Chinese New Year and the food, customs, and traditions that surround it.

Chinese New Year is celebrated on the first to the 15th day of the first month of the lunar calendar, which tends to fall between late January to mid-February. There is no exact date for the festival as it is determined by the lunar calendar and therefore changes every year.

Hongbaos (red packets) are handed out from older people and married couples to children and unmarried juniors at Chinese New Year. (Credit: Chris Hais/ flickr)

2. How is Chinese New Year celebrated?

The spreading of good fortune plays an important role during Chinese New Year and this is most clearly seen in two common practices: lighting firecrackers to ward away evil spirits, as well as handing out hongbaos (red packets) from older people and married couples to children and unmarried juniors. Money is placed in these hongbaos in even numbers, preferably in amounts with the numbers ‘8’ or ‘6’ in them to denote a lucky or smooth year. 

Chinese families gather on the eve of Chinese New Year for a reunion dinner, just like how German families do on Heiligabend. There’s plenty of food to go around the table and a warm atmosphere as all members of the family get together for this annual occasion. 

Hotpot brings family members together at reunion dinners on the eve of Chinese New Year. (Credit: thekirbster/ Flickr)

3. What do the Chinese eat during Chinese New Year? 

A main feature at most reunion dinners are the hotpot, a large communal pot in which pieces of uncooked meat and vegetables are tossed into piping hot broth to cook, and then fished out when they’re ready to be eaten. Eating hotpot together signifies loved ones coming together for a meal and is fitting for the low temperatures in that time of the year in China.

Specialty meats like Chinese sausage, lobster or abalone that are normally reserved for special occasions are often served at Chinese New Year too, as well as a fish-based dish since the Chinese phrase ‘nian nian you yu’ (translation: ‘may there be surpluses every year’) sounds like ‘may there be fish every year’. Noodles are also eaten as they symbolise a long life, dumplings for good fortune since they resemble gold ingots, as well as fruits that are round and bright in colour such as oranges, tangerines and pomelos which represent fullness and wealth.

Red is the colour of prosperity at Chinese New Year. (Credit: Akuppa John Wigham/ flickr)

4. Why is red associated with Chinese New Year?

The Chinese word for red (‘hong’) sounds like the Chinese word for prosperity, therefore red is regarded as an auspicious colour. The Chinese believe that red would deter evil spirits and bad luck, which is why red shows up on a lot of clothing and festive decorations at the Chinese New Year.

Due to the significance of the colour red, the Chinese like to dress up their doors and windows with red-coloured paper cuts of festive symbols and couplets containing poetic lines. A popular paper cut is one of the word ‘fu’ (meaning: ‘prosperity’), which is hung upside down because the word for ‘upside down’ (‘dao’) sounds similar to the word for ‘arrival’ (‘dao’).

5. What are some Chinese New Year customs?

Before Chinese New Year, families also perform a “spring cleaning” of their house, which represents a symbolic cleansing of the home to get rid of bad fortune in order to make room for better things to come. Any haircuts are also done in the lead up to the new year, because cutting one’s hair on the first day of Chinese New Year symbolises snipping off the strands of luck. Individuals and businesses also pay off money owed so that no debts are carried forward into the new year, thus symbolising a fresh start.

2020 marks the Year of the Rat in the Chinese zodiac. (Credit: George Tan/ flickr)

Year of the Rat: A new cycle begins

The year 2020 represents the Year of the Rat, the first animal in the Chinese zodiac. But how did it get there and what’s the story behind it? 

An ancient story goes that once upon a time, the Jade Emperor called for a race among 12 animals to cross a river, in order to determine the order of each animal to represent the years on the calendar. The Rat was intelligent but could not swim, so it convinced the Ox that it would sing the Ox a song, in order to hitch a ride on the latter’s back. 

Being kind yet naive, the Ox agreed, but just before it reached the other side of the river, the Rat jumped off the Ox’s head to seal his spot as the first animal of the zodiac while the Ox had to settle for second place. The other animals then followed: Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Horse, Snake, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and finally, the Pig. 

Since the Chinese zodiac runs in a 12-year cycle, it’s possible to calculate one’s age by asking them about their zodiac animal. Takes a lot of awkwardness out of simply asking one’s age outright, doesn’t it?

With that, we’d like to wish you “Xin Nian Kuai Le!” (“Happy New Year!”) and “Wan Shi Ru Yi!” (“May all your wishes be fulfilled!”) as you look forward to a year of fresh beginnings, in which you accomplish everything your heart desires!

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