Chinese New Year or the Spring Festival  (春节) is celebrated by more than 20% of the world. It’s the most important and the longest holiday in China and to Chinese people all over. It marks the end of the coldest days and people welcome spring and what it brings along: planting and harvesting and new beginnings.

The most important part of Chinese New Year is the family reunion and the associated family-oriented activities related to welcoming the new year. Not only the fun, colorful, and abundant food and festivities; but it also includes an array of Chinese traditional taboos. Every year, the Chinese New Year creates the largest human migration as millions of people travel back home for chunyun (春运) to celebrate with family. Here’s the day to day traditional practices still popular nowadays.

The First Day of the New Year

Setting firecrackers and paying respects to the God of the heavens
At one in the morning on the first day of the New Year, we open the doors and set off firecrackers. After the blasting sound finishes little bits of red paper are all over the ground, brilliant like brocaded clouds. This is called “filling the halls with red.” In Chinese culture red represents joy. In ancient times when people “opened the doors and set off firecrackers,” there were no strings of firecrackers or gunpowder, so they exploded bamboo sticks. In traditional culture, setting off firecrackers and exploding bamboo represent eliminating evil, driving off ghosts and monsters, and chasing away pestilence. Thus when the New Year arrives the first thing families do is to set off fireworks, clearing out the old and welcoming the new. After the firecrackers have been set off, we pay respects to the gods, taking the three-part cakes, fruit, vegetables, and in some cases meat dishes which were prepared beforehand and set them down in the middle of the courtyard of the house or hall, and in the kitchen. We pay respects to the god of the heavens (also called lao tian ye 老天爷), to the ancestors, and to the kitchen god. This is the first day when the kitchen god returns to the human realm. Paying respects to the god of the heavens means hoping for good weather, for good fortune to come down into the human realm, and for farmers to have a good harvest. Paying respects to the ancestors means hoping that they will protect their descendants and that the family will flourish. Paying respects to the kitchen god means hoping that the family will have a surplus in the coming year.

After setting off firecrackers and paying respects, the boys and girls successively bow to the elders to see the old year out, while the elders give them New Year’s money.

Religious people will go to a Daoist temple to pay respects to the Tai Sui God, a custom called bai sui 拜岁, which is also a traditional annual activity. At the start of the year in the morning we welcome the new year, offering up vegetarian meals to the “year god” (sui shen 岁神). The sui (year god) here is also called She Ti 摄提, or Tai Sui, both ancient names for stars directly opposite to Jupiter, which are deities in folk religion. Jupiter’s movements are cataloged by means of the sexagenary stem-branch cycle so that there are in total sixty positions. There is one year god assigned for each position, and in each year the assigned god is referred to as the “Tai Sui on duty for the year.” This god is the controller of that year, who is in charge of the good and bad fortune of people in that year. Paying respects to the year god is a long-standing New Year’s tradition, still very prevalent in the southern parts of China.

On the first day of the New Year, we eat the leftovers from the day before or do not eat at all. Some regions take this as a fasting day. None of the tools of daily work are put to use. In traditional Chinese culture, there is a belief that objects, after being used for a long period of time, will have their own spirits, so this day is one for them to rest. No one sweeps on this day, throws out the trash, or spill water outside, otherwise, it will invite bad luck. In my hometown and many other places, a few customs are preserved that on New Year’s Eve we would clean, but on the first day, we would not sweep, take out the trash, and would prepare a big bucket full of water so that we would not spill water outside that day.

The Second Day of the New Year

Visiting Families
The second day is for paying New Year’s visits, and is also called sons-in-law day (guye jie 姑爷节). On this day we go to visit our relatives to congratulate them on the New Year. People express good wishes for one another, go to visit relatives and see friends, paying New Year’s visits to one another, expressing congratulations and wishing good fortune, saying “gonghe xinxi” 恭贺新喜 (wishing happiness in the New Year), and “gongxi facai” 恭喜发财 (wishing good fortune in the New Year). New Year’s visits are a custom for relatives and friends to connect with one another and express their feelings.

In traditional culture, the second day of the first month is the sons-in-law’s day. On this day sons-in-law will each go to the home of their fathers-in-law and make a New Year’s visit. In particular, daughters who have just married will go to their family homes with their husbands. The returning daughters must bring a few presents that they can give to children in the family, and they eat lunch together. If the journey is long they will also likely stay overnight.

The Third Day of the New Year

The third day is called “red mouth” (chi kou 赤口) or “forbidden mouth” (jin kou 禁口) day. We cannot say bad things or scold others, and cannot quarrel. Generally one takes a piece of red paper about seven or eight cun 寸 (1 cun ~ 1.31 in / 3.33 cm) long and one across. On top of it one writes a few phrases about safe travels and good fortune. On the morning of the third day the tradition is to paste these red/forbidden mouth characters up inside the house. If on this day one should get in an argument, the year will not go well.

In ancient times people in the south commonly did not make New Year’s visits on the third day because that day was called “red mouth” or also “red dog day.” The red dog is a deity of fiery anger, which ancient apocryphal texts named as one of the “five emperors,” the god of the south in charge of summer. Custom believes that if on that day one becomes angry with one’s siblings, one will encounter misfortune. Therefore, “on the lesser year day” (xiao nian chao 小年朝) one should revere ancestors and gods.

The third day is also called “the lesser year day,” where the custom is to revere ancestors and gods. Typically we do not go out to make visits. Because of the red mouth we hope to avoid easily starting arguments with others. Friends and families do not go to visit one another. There is also a custom of not using knives or scissors from the first through the third days. “Lesser year day”: the ancients said that on the third day, the lesser year day, one should not sweep the ground, look for kindling, or draw water, the same as on the first day.

The Fourth Day of the New Year

The fourth day is called the sheep day. It is when the goddess Nuwa is thought to have created sheep, and so was called “sheep day.” In the Han dynasty system of year divination (sui zhan 岁占), the eight days after the New Year are given the following designations: day one is a rooster, two is a dog, three is a monkey, four is a sheep, five is a cow, six is a horse, seven is a person, and eight is fields. If a particular day is sunny, then the thing it governs will flourish. But if it is cloudy then that thing will not prosper. Later eras followed this custom, believing that if all the days between the first and tenth day were clear, without wind or snow, that would be auspicious. Later, year divination grew into a series of offerings and celebrations. On the first day one does not kill chickens, on the second dogs, on the third monkeys, on the fourth sheep, on the fifth cows, on the sixth horses, on the seventh there are no punishments, and on the eighth one does not work the fields. The Chinese folk legend is that when the goddess Nuwa created the myriad things and creatures, she first created the six domestic animals, then created people. Because of this, the first six days of the year are assigned to the domestic animals. On the third-day people do not kill sheep. Images of sheep invite good fortune. In Chinese traditional culture, this is often referred to as “three sheep begin peace” (san yang kai tai 三羊(阳)开泰), which is what the images evoke. If the weather is good that day then it implies that during the year sheep will grow well and the year will be prosperous.

The Fifth Day of the New Year

Welcoming the god of wealth.
In folk legends, the god of wealth is the god of five roads. These five roads refer to the north, south, east, west, and center, and imply that whatever way one sets out, all will be profitable. On the night of the fourth day at midnight, we prepare offerings like candies, and incense, and make prayers ringing gongs, beating drums, and lighting incense, to show sincere reverence toward the god of wealth. Whenever the god of wealth is invited, one must provide a sheep’s head and carp. The sheep’s head implies good fortune, while the word for fish in Chinese sounds similar to the one for “plentiful,” making an auspicious poem. People deeply believe that they need only attain the god of wealth’s manifestation, and then they will gain good fortune and wealth. After the god of wealth is received, everyone will invite guests to drink and go to other places to drink until dawn. Everyone hopes to be full of prosperity, wishing that the god of wealth will bring treasures to their families and that the new year will be full of good fortune.

The Sixth Day of the New Year

Sending Off Day
On the sixth day, we send things off, a unique custom for Chinese people. People will throw out the old things they no longer need or will burn them, cleaning the house, clearing out dirty and filthy things. Each region in China has its own methods of sending things off. But the implication is basically the same: it is all to send away the needy ghosts (qiong gui 穷鬼). People usually hope to get rid of the old and welcome the new, sending off the hardships of the past and welcoming the better life in the year to come.

This day is also called “pouring out manure” (yi fei 挹肥) day. From the first day to the fifth one cannot clean, so old outhouses would become very full. Thus, on this day one would need to clean it out while at the same time paying respects to the god of the bathroom, making the usually filthy bathroom clean.

The Seventh Day of the New Year

Celebrating Humanity
The seventh day is called the “human day,” “human success day,” “human celebration day,” “population day,” and “seventh day, for humans.” According to legend when Nuwa created the world, after creating chickens, dogs, pigs, cows, horses and so forth, on the seventh day she made humans, so this day is considered the birthday of humanity.

In my hometown in Henan we call this day “mouse wedding day,” a kind of folk custom. On this day we would make activities in praise of mice which are called “mouse marries the daughter,” or “mouse takes a wife.” On this day we avoid opening cabinets, for fear of startling the mice. On this day the mice marry, so we go to bed early in order to not disturb the mice. Custom says if you bother them for a day, they will bother you for a year.

The Eight Day of the New Year

Beginning of Work, Gods Meeting Procession, Rice Paddy Day
On the eighth day we start working, it is also the procession of the gods meeting, and the day for fields. Bosses will give red envelopes to their workers who begin working, no matter whether they are repairing bridges, roads or building houses, or in factories. This is the first thing bosses do when they come to work after the New Year. The phrase “sending/assigning profits” (pai li shi 派利是) is also written as “profit in the marketplace” (li shi 利市) and “profitable affairs” (li shi 利市). The phrase “li shi, li shi” (利是利是) implies that all things in the new year will be profitable, and one will be celebrated.

The gods’ meeting procession is a type of traditional folk custom. Every year on the eighth day of the New Year we hold a large public festival. The gods meeting procession is a way of worshiping the gods, images of the gods are carried in procession, a stage is set up for a ritual called the jiao 醮. The religious festival is the core activity, accompanied by all sorts of folk performances and entertaining friends and family, and also holding a large public festival. The main purpose is to thank the gods of heaven and earth for their grace, to drive out evil spirits and pestilence, to pray that the wind be soft and the rain smooth, that all undertakings prosper, and that the country and its people be at peace.

The eighth day is also the day when the stellar deities descend to earth, and we make and light small lamps to celebrate them. It is called “following the stars” (shun xing 顺星), “celebrating the stars” (ji xing 祭星), and “receiving the stars” (jie xing 接星). The ceremony is performed with two slips of spirit counters. On the first one is printed images like stars, the vermillion phoenix of the south, and the mysterious warrior of the north. On the second is the phrase “natal longevity extending stellar lord” (benming yannianshou xingjun 本命延年寿星君). These two are placed together back and front pressed inside spirit paper and placed inside a square behind a ritual altar in the courtyard, where they are enshrined. After dusk, it is offered up to the Big Dipper. After the ceremony, we wait for the remaining lamps to go out, then take the spirit counters, some vetiver grass, and sesame straw, and burn them together with pine and cypress branches. Then the ritual is complete. It is said that the eighth day is the birthday of millet. On this day if the sky is overcast then the year will be deficient, while if the weather is good then the fields will be fertile.

The Ninth Day of the New Year

The ninth day is the day of heaven, also called “day of the lord of heaven” (tian gong ri 天公日). It is said that this day is the birthday of the Jade Emperor. It is mostly spent paying respects to the Jade Emperor, and in Daoist temples there are many rituals. In a few places on this day women will prepare fragrant candles, fasting bowls, and place them in the open air of inner yards and alleyways and bow to the sky seeking the blessing of the celestial lord.

The Tenth Day of the New Year

The tenth day is the birthday of stones.
In many places in Henan, Shandong, and Anhui there are celebrations for the stone gods, where nothing made of stone can be used. Families will offer incense to stones. On this day no work that involves milling or grinding stones can be done, out of fear of harming the crops. It is also called “do not move stones” (shi bu dong 石不动) and “do not move on the tenth” (shi bu dong 十不动). In some places at once in the morning of the tenth-day people will put a large smooth rock on a frozen pot, which ten boys or girls will take turns carrying about. If the stone does not fall to the ground it indicates the coming year will be prosperous.  

The Eleventh Day of the New Year

The eleventh is called “son-in-law day,” when fathers-in-law entertain their sons-in-law. Legend has it that this is because the food used to celebrate “lord of heaven day” on the ninth would still be leftover on the tenth, so people would make use of the eleventh to invite their sons-in-law over to help eat the leftovers, so the maternal family need not spend too much on the entertaining.

The Twelfth Day of the New Year

Setting Up Lantern Stands, Incense Meeting Day
On the twelfth, the Zhai 斋 ritual is performed and we set up stands of lanterns. Groups of religious believers also refer to this as the “incense meeting” (burning incense, members meeting).  One person is chosen to be in charge of this incense, and they go to the Daoist temple to make offerings. Afterward, they invite the gods to come back home with them and sit down above their halls. They offer up sweets and incense. The person in charge of incense is also “the head of the zhai (fast).” It is very hard to become this head of incense, so it is a great honor, because people commonly believe that whoever is in charge of the zhai will be adored by the gods, which brings with it good luck, the coming year will bring with it prosperity and success, and the accomplishment of whatever one intends to do. Thus whoever is in this position does it solemnly. Being in charge of the zhai requires offering up the ritual wine and entertaining visitors.

From that day on, people will begin to prepare to celebrate the Lantern Festival (yuanxiao jiajie 元宵佳节), picking out lanterns and setting up stands for them. There is a children’s rhyme that says: “on the eleventh make noise, on the twelfth set up lantern stands, on the thirteenth people light the lanterns, on the fourteenth the lanterns are properly bright, on the fifteenth half the month has passed, on the sixteenth people put out the lanterns.”

The Thirteenth Day of the New Year

Temple Fairs, Lighting the Lanterns
On the thirteenth day, the traditional custom is that in places that have temples there will be three days of temple fairs starting from this day until the fifteenth. There are Buddhist rituals, live performances, and dragon and lion dances. On the outside of the temple, there are peddlers, jugglers, doctors, fortune tellers, and hungry beggars. There are also a few thieves and messy vagrants.

The thirteenth is also the “birthday of lamps,” because in folk custom on this day one must light the burner below the kitchen stove, so it is called “lighting the lantern.” It is said that from the thirteenth one raises the lamps and on the eighteenth lowers them.

The Fourteenth Day of the New Year

Temple Fairs, Trying out the Lanterns, Sampling Bright-Eye Soup

On this day the temple fairs continue. In traditional Chinese folk customs, worshiping the gods and praying for good fortune is indispensable, so the people will drink a few simple vegetable soups in the temple, called “bright eye soup” (liang yan tang 亮眼汤) Or they will eat some zaogeng 糟羹 soup. In a few places there is also a custom of “sending toads” (song qima 送蛴蟆) People who participate in the event will eat and drink, and afterward will carry lanterns on bamboo poles up the side of a mountain. They set off fireworks and “send off toads.” The toads are a local object of worship, beneficial creatures able to ward off plagues, make evil monsters flee, purge many kinds of poisons and pests, and ensure there is a good harvest in the coming year.

The Fifteenth Day of the New Year

 Yuanxiao Festival 元宵节, Shangyuan Festival 上元节
The fifteenth day is called the Yuanxiao Festival, the lantern festival. Traditional customs include admiring lanterns, carrying lanterns through the streets, guessing riddles, setting off fireworks, making sweet dumplings (called yuanxiao 元宵) and eating glutinous rice.

The glutinous rice eaten on the fifteenth is also called yuanxiao. The glutinous rice is a type of dish that has been made in China for ages. Glutinous rice signifies gathering together. In the north, people also eat dumplings.

In many places in China, on the fifteenth there is also the custom of “performing traditional festivities,” which several villages gather together to celebrate. Traditional festivities include walking on stilts and parade floats with people performing the dragon and lion dances, and it is also a time when young people look for partners to woo.

In my hometown in Henan on the fifteenth there was a custom of “if you steal a lantern, you’ll have a grandson.” This is a custom for newlyweds thinking of having children. A pot of steamed buns are made, filled with sesame oil, have a wick placed in them and are lit. Neighborhood boys and girls will quietly take the lamps that have used up their oil, “facing the lanterns” (mian deng 面灯). This custom is called “stealing the lamp dish.” In some places the lanterns a family puts out are not brought in that evening, but are allowed run out of oil overnight. The next day they add oil and set it alight again, so this is called “continuing the lantern.” Generally this continues up to the seventeenth day when they “bring in the lanterns,” “face the lanterns,” or “lantern buns,” which must be brought back in to send off “the hungry,” which is called “giving lodging to the spirit fruit” (she shen guo 舍神果).

In Daoism this day is the Shangyuan Festival, the birthday of the Heavenly Official (tian guan 天官). Believers will go to Daoist temples to worship the Heavenly Official, and receive the Heavenly Official’s blessings. In traditional Chinese culture, the Heavenly Official administers the fortunes of human beings.

[1] You shen 游神 (Spirit/God Pageants) are parades where images of divinities are carried through the streets, accompanied with music and performances like holiday parades everywhere.

[2] Ya zhou (literally “escorting/sending away a boat”) is a ceremony involving a paper boat where townspeople place things like hair and feathers that symbolize negative influences. The boat is then burned to dispel them.

Author: XuanYun Zhou

Translater: Larson Di Fiori