By | January 2022
Chinese New Year. Spring Festival. Lunar New Year. Whatever you choose to call it, it is China’s most important annual celebration and is celebrated for 15 days. This year, Feb. 1 will herald in the Year of the Tiger.
In 2000, Spring Festival was made one of three “Golden Week” holidays in mainland China. To mark each new incoming year, the largest human migration will take place beginning on the eve of Spring Festival. In 2022, that would be Jan. 31 through Feb. 6 when millions of Chinese in mainland China will be traveling home for family reunions and or taking vacations.
According to Reuters, despite COVID-19, China expects more than 1 million passenger trips to be made on a newly opened high-speed rail link from Kunming , Yunnan Province, to Vientiane, Laos during the peak Lunar New Year travel period. In late-December, Beijing encouraged its city residents to stay put for the Golden Week holiday, but also said it would facilitate traveling of migrant workers and college students who “have a strong desire to return to their hometowns” for Spring Festival.
But why is Chinese New Year also known by Lunar New Year and Spring Festival? Lunar New Year is obvious – to differentiate it from the Gregorian calendar new year. In 1912, the Chinese government abolished Chinese New Year and the lunar calendar and adopted the Gregorian calendar, making Jan. 1 the official start of the new year. However, after the communists took over in 1949, Lunar New Year was reinstated and renamed it to avoid confusion with the Gregorian new year. In addition, as an agrarian nation, the Chinese observed the lunar calendar for practical agricultural purposes. Lunar New Year signifies the approach of spring, when farming activities such as ploughing and planting begin. The Chinese government made Spring Festival a nationwide public holiday.
Lunar new year, however, is not only celebrated in mainland China. It is also observed and celebrated by Chinese the world over. Any location with a large Chinese population such as Hong Kong, Macau, London, Taiwan, Toronto, Vancouver and, in the U.S., Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco all have their own parades and activities welcoming the new year.
And just like Christmas, no matter where the Chinese are, there are many decorations they put up for Chinese New Year. Traditionally, decorative items usually go up on New Year’s Eve. However, the times are a-changin’, and nowadays, decorations usually get put up a week before. Here are a few popular traditional items:
Spring couplets are a combination of two-line verses / poems and calligraphy. Each verse usually has seven or nine words written in black ink (or gold ink if mass-produced!) on red paper. Each verse on its own vertical red strip of paper. These are affixed to the door or door frame. They express good wishes or what the residents wish for in the coming year, including harmony, prosperity and health.
Besides the front door, couplets can also be displayed indoors in living rooms.
Placing couplets on one’s door started around the time of the Song Dynasty (960-1279) but was popularized during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).
The character “Fú” (福)
Also often displayed on the front door or window is the character “福,” which means “blessing” or “good fortune.” However, many times the character is hung in an upside-down manner because “upside down” in Chinese sounds like “到” (dào), which means “arrive.” So, displaying the character upside down symbolizes blessing and good fortune have arrived.
A very traditional Chinese icon is the red lantern. It is a symbol of reunions, prosperity, happiness and vitality. Hanging a lit red lantern in the doorway on Chinese New Year’s Eve brightens the doorway and signifies hope for the coming year. Besides, red lanterns are believed to ward off bad luck. They usually stay up until the 15th day of the first lunar month.
Another reason for hanging red lanterns is because they are supposed to light the way for the family’s kitchen god when he returns from making his report to the higher celestial deities. Therefore, whatever you do, do NOT hang the lanterns in the middle of the doorway or they’ll block positive energy from entering and negative energy from leaving the premises!
Nowadays, red lanterns are usually hung en masse overhead in open spaces instead of just above the door. They exude an air of festivity.
The red woven knot is a traditional folk-art item. Chinese have used knots as decorations since the Han Dynasty (202 B.C.-A.D. 220). The knot is tied and woven from a single length of cord into various shapes, each with its particular symbolic meaning.
The Pan Chang knot is the one usually displayed at Chinese New Year because it consists of eight loops and eight “ears” and we all know that the number eight is extremely auspicious in Chinese culture. Besides, the word “knot” in Chinese is “结, jie,” which represents harmony and unification. Therefore, the knots have come to symbolize and express happiness, prosperity and unity.
Another item of decoration that also derived from a traditional handicraft is the paper cut. Paper cuts are designs cut out of paper with scissors. Most designs are of the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac. But there also are some depicting the three auspicious characters: good fortune, “福, fú;” prosperity, “祿, lù;” longevity, “壽, shou.” Other popular designs include the peach (symbolizes longevity.), fish (represents abundance), the character for spring “春.” In northern China these paper cuts are often pasted on doors and windows.
According to a paper-cut expert in Hong Kong, the artform dates back 1,500 years to the Northern and Southern Song dynasties and the majority of paper cut artists are women.
Live and blooming plants
Popular plants are the coin tree, kumquat, lucky bamboo and money tree because their names all represent money and wealth. Their mere presence in a home is believed to welcome wealth to the family. Branches of plum or peach blossoms, orchids, and peonies are also very popular in Hong Kong and Macau as they signify the approach of spring and new beginnings as well as symbolize longevity. The delicate branches are usually bought at night markets on New Year’s Eve.
Often homes and business establishments hang strings of red- and gold-colored firecrackers outside. These are set off on New Year’s Day to create a festive atmosphere. Furthermore, the loud explosive noise is believed to scare away evil spirits.
If you haven’t caught on, most of the Chinese New Year decorations are in red. For Chinese, red is the color of good luck, happiness and vigor. Also, Chinese mythology said that a half-bull, half-lion beast known as Nian used to terrorize the people and eat their crops, and even kids! However, this mythical beast is afraid of fire, noise and the color red. Therefore, red is used everywhere and on most new year decorations as a form of protection to keep the beast at bay. (See sidebar for additional colors to use or not use around Chinese New Year.)
Chinese New Year is all about sweeping out the old and welcoming in luck, prosperity and happiness. Put your own twist on incorporating your creativity in the decorations.
Deck out your home in red and gold and on New Year’s Day, don a red outfit. What’s not to like in drawing in health, wealth and good luck for the coming year with minimal effort?
Keywords: Chinese New Year, Lunar New Year, Chinese culture, Chinese holidays, Spring Festival, new year decorations