The Chinese New Year, Also called lunar New year, or the Spring Festival, is a holiday celebrated in many Asian countries. The calendar used for calculating the lunar New Year is based on the cycles of the moon, which was extremely important in ancient agricultural societies where farmers used the lunar calendar to understand the periods of sowing, sprouting, and growth of crops.

The Chinese New Year is a beginning. In the agricultural eras of the past, the Spring Festival centered on a wide range of activities like paying respects to spirits, memorializing ancestors, exorcising pathogenic influences, warding off disasters, wishing for a fruitful year, and sending off the old and welcoming the new. Because the customs and diets of each region are different there are variations in the details and specifics of the customs, with each ethnic group having their own particularities. There is a saying in China that “every five miles the customs differ, every ten miles the standards change.” But speaking generally, most aspects are similar.

As it has been passed down, the Spring Festival has developed a few relatively established customs, including some continued in the present day like cleaning, pasting couplets on the door, eating New Year’s dinner, staying up to say farewell to the past year and welcome the new, dragon and lion dances, memorializing ancestors, wishing for fortune and warding off disasters, lighting firecrackers and fireworks, spirit pageants (you shen 游神),[1] escorting the boat (ya zhou 押舟),[2] temple fairs, parading flags, and viewing lanterns.

When I was small my favorite thing in the world was celebrating the Chinese New Year: there was meat to eat, my parents would give me new clothes and shoes, I got lucky money, and we went to see relatives. I played with my cousins. We could also visit my grandmother’s house. We could light strings of firecrackers and set off fireworks. These were things we could not normally do because when I was little the economy of a rural town did not allow it.

The Chinese New Year starts from the twenty-third day of the last month of the lunar calendar. There is a saying that “on the twenty-third dry (biscuits) on the stove.” This day we call “lesser year” (xiao nian 小年) and we pay respects to the kitchen god. We take down old images of the kitchen god and paste up new ones, and bake biscuits on the stove as a way of celebrating the kitchen god. On the twenty-fourth the kitchen god ascends up to the heavens and reports to the Jade Emperor about the merits and mistakes (good and bad deeds) of each family member in the last year. The biscuits are provisions for the kitchen god to eat on the road.

On the twenty-fourth we sweep rooms. This day is called mang nian 忙年 (being busy for the year), when we sweep and clean, which we call sao chen 扫尘 (sweeping out dust), a custom for cleaning out the old and spreading out the new. A folk adage says “On the twenty-fourth day of the twelfth lunar month, brush out the dust and sweep the rooms.” The twenty-fourth is the proper beginning of making preparations for welcoming the new year. Sweeping out the dust cleans out end of the year. Every time the Spring Festival comes, every household will sweep their surroundings, clean household implements, wash bedding and curtains, and sprinkle water at the six gates to the courtyard, brushing out dusts and cobwebs, dredging out ditches and drains, so as to cleanly welcome in the new spring.

The twenty-fifth is for milling tofu. In my hometown there is a custom to eat tofu dregs before New Year’s Eve. According to legend, after the kitchen god ascends up to the heavens, the Jade Emperor will make inquiries about the world below to see whether each family is as the kitchen god presented. Because the family members have eaten tofu dregs they will appear to be poor but honest, in this way hiding from the punishment of the Jade Emperor so that there will be good luck in the coming year. This day is also one for welcoming the Jade Emperor. In folk tradition after the kitchen god ascends to heaven, the Jade Emperor descends in order to evaluate the good and bad deeds of humans and establish the good and bad fortune for the coming year. So families celebrate him in order to pray for good fortune, welcoming the Jade Emperor. We have to be careful in our behavior and speech on this day, striving for a good appearance in order to win over the favor of the Jade Emperor and bring good fortune for the coming year.

The twenty-sixth is for cutting meat for the year, “On the twenty-sixth day of the twelfth month, slaughter pigs and cut meat,” says that this day is primarily for preparing the meat for celebrating the new year. Thus this is called “meat for the year.”

This day is also an important market day. The people of neighboring villages all go to the market to buy New Year’s goods, tobacco, alcohol, fish, meat, and firecrackers, and also gifts for when they visit relatives. In the past most people’s lives were difficult and families were also fairly large. Because of this it was often the case that there might not be another meal after the current one. Those in somewhat better circumstances could manage to eat fully, so when it was close to the New Year and the workers began to slaughter pigs, those who did not raise pigs at home came to the market to get a cut of meat to bring home. Thus, the stewed pork of the twenty-sixth day of the twelfth month is referred to in the phrase “on the twenty-sixth day of the twelfth month, slaughter pigs and cut meat for the new year.”

The twenty-seventh is for washing away disease. On this day everyone in a family bathes and washes away bad luck (dark qi) and illness so that they may be healthy in the coming year.

The twenty-eighth is for making noodles and cakes and pasting up flowers. Pasting up flowers refers to putting up New Year pictures, Spring Festival couplets, paper cuttings on windows, and other sorts of decorations.

The twenty-ninth is for stewing or brining meat. On this day meat is cooked in preparation for the first through fifth days of the New Year.

The thirtieth, which is New Year’s eve, is for putting up red papers for the year, which include Spring couplets, images of door gods, New Year pictures, lucky characters, horizontally written phrases, and window decorations. These represent the red, festive elements of celebrating the New Year, so they are called “putting up red papers for the year.” Putting up red papers is a Chinese traditional custom and belief, which adds to the celebratory atmosphere of the holiday, and expresses people’s expectations for life in the new year.

This day is also for venerating ancestors, which is one of the important customs of celebrating the New Year. People in China have carried on these traditions faithfully from ancient times, and cannot forget to pay respects to their ancestors, asking for their blessings. On New Year’s Eve, families will set out dishes of food, pour alcohol, and perform a solemn ceremony so as to express their thoughts about their forbears and entreat their blessings.

In my hometown in Henan the custom was that on the night of the thirtieth each household would eat New Year’s dumplings. If I don’t eat dumplings it won’t feel like celebrating the New Year! On the thirtieth we would all stay together so that after eating the New Year’s meal, we would all sit together as a family, eating candy and melon seeds, talking about friends and family, chatting about family life, and for the whole night none of us would sleep. This is called  “staying up late in vigil for the year.”

[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.

  XuanYun Zhou

 Translater: Larson Di Fior