Last Saturday marked the start of Chinese New Year – a 15-day long festival filled with family, food and tradition. Although the festival dates back thousands of years, people today are still excited to honour ancient traditions from wherever they are in the world.
As legend has it…
For people today, Chinese New Year is a joyous occasion, but the origins of the festival are somewhat dark. There are many variations, but generally, this is how the tale goes…
On the darkest night of every year, when the new moon was in the sky, a beast called ‘Nian’ would sneak into a Chinese village. Villagers would dread this night because the Nian had an appetite for human flesh – particularly that of children. One year, a wise old man encouraged the villagers to fight back, telling them that the Nian was afraid of three things – loud noise, fire, and the colour red. So the villagers lit red lanterns and firecrackers, played loud drums, and dressed entirely in red. They succeeded in scaring off the Nian, who was never to return again. Since that night, the occurrence of the new moon has been celebrated, not feared, and the weapons used against the Nian have become the iconic symbols of Chinese New Year.
What date does it fall on?
Chinese New Year spans 15 days- the first day falling on the new moon between January 21st and February 20th. In the Chinese calendar, the new year begins near the midpoint between winter solstice and spring equinox. The start dates for years to come are already set out, and differ from year to year.
The year of the ‘fire rooster’
2017 marks the year of the Rooster – one of 12 animals that take part in the zodiac cycle. According to another legend, a great race was held by the Jade Emperor, wherein the first 12 animals to reach the emperor’s palace would get a year named after them. The rooster was the 10th animal to reach the palace, therefore 2017 is the 10th year in a 12 year cycle. In 2020, the cycle will begin again with the animal that came in 1st place – the rat.
Not only do the animals cycle around by year – there are also 5 elements that cycle around: Gold (metal), Wood, Water, Fire and Earth. Given the two different cycle lengths (12 years for animals, 5 years for elements), the two symbols only align every 60 years, which makes 2017 the first year of the Fire Rooster since 1957.
The first day
The first day is when the Reunion Dinner takes place. Often Chinese people will travel back to China, or wherever their family is located for this special reunion. This is not any ordinary dinner – it’s a feast, wherein many of the dishes have special symbolic meaning. Egg rolls symbolise wealth for the coming year, as they resemble bars of solid gold. Noodles represent longevity, so the Chinese are careful not to cut them to ensure a long life. Finally, shrimp (or prawns) represent happiness, as they’re shaped like a smile. On this day, red envelopes filled with money are given out to younger family members and unmarried adults, to wish them prosperity and good fortune.
The last day
On the last day, Chinese people send lanterns into the night sky, which symbolises letting go of their former selves as they welcome in the new year. The lanterns can take many shapes such as fish, dragons and goats, and they often hold riddles for the people to solve (for fun, or for a small prize). Lion dances are a feature of the day, which is a traditional folk dance performed to drums, symbolising bravery and strength. Tangyuan is the traditional meal- a soup containing round ball-shaped dumplings, which symbolises wholeness and togetherness.
If you didn’t know much about Chinese New Year, we hope you’ve now got a better idea of what it involves, and why it’s such a special event in the lives of Chinese people and the wider community. At the end of the day, any celebration that involves music, stories and mouth-watering food is okay in our book!