Explaining Chinese Lunar New Year Traditions
It’s overwhelmingly red and gold everywhere here in China during the Chinese Spring Festival, also known as the Chinese New Year. But what is the underlying story, and why do the Chinese unleash a riot of “dancing lions” to perform the holiday ritual?
Putting aside today’s festive way of marking the New Year, there is a story that holds the explanation behind today’s holiday traditions.
Thousands of years ago, there was a beast named Nian who, during the New Year, would rise from its hideout in the seas and raid villages, eating livestock and causing harm to the local people. The peoples soon found out that Nian’s weakness is his fear of loud noises, fire and the color red. And this is the beginning of the explanation of today’s traditions of setting off firecrackers, lighting lamps everywhere and hanging red banners on the sides of doorways and entrances.
Firecrackers, at the center of this Festival, are another phenomenon at this time of year. Since ancient times, firecrackers were used to deter bad omens, evil spirits and misfortune. Firecrackers would also awaken dragons, which would then fly in the sky, instigating abundant rainfall for village crops. It is believed that firecrackers were invented in China more than a thousand years ago precisely for this purpose. During celebrations, firecrackers are thrown at the feet of these sleepy dragons to keep them awake for the celebrations.
The lions are not to be forgotten! Besides scaring away evil spirits, the Lion Dance is a lively act of history, culture, and martial arts as the lions dance to the drums and gongs. A lion, in Chinese culture, is an ancient symbol of the virtues of strength and courage, a natural leader against Nian horrors. Today, walk around China during the CNY and you will easily see lions performing the holiday ritual and also eating greens, as a way to bring wealth and good fortune.
Red sets the tone and mood of the CNY. Signs and decorations are made from essentially red and gold paper, and these decorations hold inside the messages of good fortune, long life, and happiness. As for red banners, they are hung on both sides of doors and entrances to preserve and invite good luck.
In contrast with Christmas, Chinese people do not exchange gifts; rather, they give and receive red packets of various designs with money inside. Red remains representative of the meaning of this tradition. While it was once more common to have the older generation only giving the younger one red packets, today, this tradition is extended beyond the household to the wider social group of friends and neighbors and even the employer-employee sphere. The relationship and personal preference influence the amount of money that the person includes in his/her red packet before giving the receiver, and this varies across people.
So go crazy on the firecrackers (be safe too), wander around, eat especially good holiday food, rejoice and be festive! And to those yet to experience their first Chinese New Year, now you’re ready to do so.
To everybody, including Chinese people everywhere in the world, XNKL and may it be a new prosperous year!