Today marks the beginning of the Chinese New Year, also known as the Lunar New Year due to its derivation from the cycles of the moon. It is an important day of celebration for many people in the eastern countries of Asia and for many Chinese migrant communities living outside of China. According to the Chinese zodiac, 2008 is the year of the Rat, the first in a series of 12 cyclical animal-named years. It also correlates to the year 4706 according to the ancient Chinese calendar.
In most regions that celebrate it, the first three days of the New Year are considered public holidays. In fact, I have noticed that many calendars found in Chinese restaurants here in America have these three dates colored in red, as opposed to black for the other days. In China, the holiday is officially known as the Spring Festival, and is a period of various traditional festivities that continues for 15 days, culminating in the Lantern Festival on the final day.
Because the Chinese New Year signifies the beginning of the spring season, many of the traditional customs revolve around an “out with the old, in with the new” theme. In the days before the new year actually begins, many families will perform a thorough house cleaning, as this is supposed to sweep away the bad luck from the previous year. It is also a time for payment of outstanding debts and the forgiving of old grudges so that everyone can start with a clean slate and hopefully have plenty of good luck and prosperity in the new year.
Many families hold reunions during this period, often celebrating the occasion with relatively elaborate, multi-course meals in a way that is somewhat reminiscent of American Thanksgiving Day feasts. One custom that is unique to this particular holiday is the giving of little red packets called “Hong Bao”. These are small envelopes that contain various amounts of money ranging from a few dollars to a few hundred and have Chinese characters printed on the outside of them. They are typically given to younger family members by older ones and to unmarried people by those who are married.
Fireworks are also a significant part of the festivities, traditionally used along with the color red as a way of repelling the legendary monster Nian. Hundreds of small firecrackers wrapped in red paper are strung together and ignited with long fuses, making lots of loud popping noises to scare away evil spirits and perhaps a few unsuspecting bystanders as well. Unfortunately, in recent years sporadic accidents associated with the handling of fireworks has prompted governments in several regions to ban private ownership of them, although they can still be used in most rural areas and even in some cities where the rules are sparsely enforced, such as in this video of this year’s fireworks celebrations in Shanghai:
Meanwhile, others celebrate the new year with various singing and dancing performances, such as this one by a group of children apparently from Malaysia according to some of the YouTube commentators:
Here is another performance, this time by adult singers Bobby Au-Yeung and Nancy Sit:
Finally, here is another popular Chinese New Year song performed with an animated video that displays the lyrics roughly translated into English:
The actual date of the Chinese New Year varies according to the lunar cycle. Specifically, it is determined by finding the date of the second new moon after the winter solstice. This year (2008), it happened to fall on February 7, but in other years it may fall anywhere between January 21 and February 20. For future reference, here are the dates for Chinese New Year for the next 12-year cycle:
Feb. 07, 2008 - Rat
Jan. 26, 2009 - Ox
Feb. 14, 2010 - Tiger
Feb. 03, 2011 - Rabbit (Hare)
Jan. 23, 2012 - Dragon
Feb. 10, 2013 - Snake
Jan. 31, 2014 - Horse
Feb. 19, 2015 - Goat
Feb. 08, 2016 - Monkey
Jan. 28, 2017 - Rooster
Feb. 16, 2018 - Dog
Feb. 05, 2019 - Pig (Boar)
Jan. 25, 2020 - Rat