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Another Chance to Ring in 2020: Chinese New Year

When you’re a child, you’re always curious about things you’re not allowed to do. As a youngster, I remember wanting so much to be able to stay up to see in a new year, but being tucked into bed way before that happened. I actually don’t remember the first time I was awake at midnight on January

1, but I do know as the years have gone by, I’ve reverted to what I was forced to do as a kid — hitting the hay hours before a new year begins.

I know many people make plans to party on New Year’s Eve, perhaps dressing up for the occasion and often drinking to excess — knowing the following day is a holiday. If you’re someone who’s a New Year’s fan, and maybe wishes you could celebrate more than once a year, you’re in luck, because the Chinese New Year is right around the corner.

Chinese New Year ABCs

For those who follow the Gregorian calendar, the start of a new year is always January 1. But because the Chinese New Year marks the beginning of the lunar new year — when there is the start of a new moon — it varies from year to year, but always falls between January 21 and February 20. That’s also why it’s often called the Lunar New Year.

Chinese New Year is also known as the Spring Festival, and it's the most important holiday in China and to Chinese people all over. As you probably know, in Chinese tradition, each year is named after one of 12 animals that feature in the Chinese zodiac: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Pig.

The Year of the Rat — the first of all the zodiac animals — will begin on January 25. In Chinese culture, rats were seen as a sign of wealth and surplus. According to one myth, the Emperor said the order would be determined by the order in which the animals arrived at his party. The Rat tricked the Ox into giving him a ride — and just as they arrived at the finish line, the Rat jumped down and landed ahead of the Ox, earning the first distinction.

You probably know your Western astrological sign — based on the month and day you were born. I’m a Virgo. It’s easy to learn your Chinese zodiac sign, because it’s based on the year you were born. I’m a pig. In Chinese culture, pigs represent good fortune, and those of us born in the year of the pig are said to be friendly and relaxed.

How Do People Celebrate?

Before the Chinese New Year rolls around, people clean their homes well to prepare them for the celebrations. There’s a tradition on New Year’s Day not to pick up a broom — in case you sweep your New Year’s good luck out of the door.

Like the Western New Year’s Eve, fireworks and firecrackers are a part of the celebration — but they have a deeper meaning for the Chinese; it’s believed the noise and lights will scare away evil spirits for the coming months. Eating delicious food also occurs, including noodle soup, which traditionally brings luck for the year ahead.

Unlike the Western New Year’s holiday, which is just one day, in China, schools and businesses may close for the first few days of a new year, so people can spend time with their families. And festivities such as parades and performances continue for two weeks, ending with a special lantern festival that signals the end of the New Year celebration period.

Did You Know?

More than 20 percent of the world’s population celebrates Chinese New Year. Here are some other things you may not know about this celebration:

  • The Spring Festival was originally a ceremonial day to pray to the gods for a good planting and harvest season.

  • According to one legend, a monster named Nian would come out every New Year’s Eve, so most people hid in their homes. One boy was brave enough to fight him off using firecrackers; the next day, people celebrated their survival by setting off more firecrackers, and thus that practice became a crucial part of the Spring Festival.

  • The Spring Festival causes the largest human migration in the world — because the family reunion is the most important part of Chinese New Year. It’s called Spring Migration when people flock home for New Year’s Eve dinner.

  • Plenty of things are taboo during Chinese New Year, including hair cutting; using scissors, knives, or other sharp objects; arguing and swearing; saying unlucky words, such as death or sickness; and breaking things.

  • Children receive gifts for the holiday, but also red envelopes including money that’s supposed to help transfer fortune from the elders to the kids. Evolving with the times, digital red pockets are now a trend — people like to send them in group chats and watch others fight for the money.

  • Technically, dumplings are supposed to be eaten for every meal, every day. But because so much other delicious food is available, most people limit their dumpling eating to New Year’s Eve dinner.

  • The Chinese decorate everything red for Chinese New Year — red lanterns and strings of (real or fake) chili peppers are hung, red paper is pasted onto doors and windows, and more. People also buy new red clothes at this time.

  • In China, people have real ages — the ones we have, celebrated on the anniversary of our birth — and fake nominal ages. The latter, which was the age most people went with until modern times, increase with the Spring Festival.

  • London, San Francisco, and Sydney claim to have the biggest Spring Festivals outside of Asia — featuring parades, lion dances, lantern statues, fireworks, and amazing food. You can get a feel for the celebration in any nearby Chinatown.

Happy New Year, or “xin nian kuai le” — the New Year greeting in China; “gong hei fat choy,” — used more commonly in Hong Kong and other Cantonese-speaking regions; or Mandarin Chinese’s “gong xi fa cai,” which means “congratulations on the fortune.”

Do you have any Chinese New Year traditions to share — or perhaps you’ve been part of a memorable celebration you’d like to tell us about. We’d love to hear it!

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