15 Celebration-Worthy Facts About Chinese New Year

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istock

Happy Chinese New Year! Also known as the Spring Festival, this upcoming holiday is packed full of traditions and symbolism. Here’s everything you need to know about the shindig.

1. The Chinese New Year doesn’t always fall on the same date.

China adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1912, but this holiday is based on the ancient Chinese, or lunar, calendar. Chinese New Year falls on the second new moon after winter solstice (somewhere between January 21st and February 19th). This year, Chinese New Year is February 19.

2. The New Year is China’s most important holiday.

It’s also China’s longest: The holiday is observed for 15 days. Technically, only the first three days are a statutory holiday, but most Chinese citizens will have the time from New Year’s Eve to the sixth day off from work.

3. San Francisco holds the largest Chinese New Year celebration outside of China.

The California gold rush of 1849 brought many people to the West Coast, including Chinese immigrants who worked on the railroads. Eager to share their culture with other Californians, these immigrants adopted the American tradition of a parade to celebrate their New Year. Since then, the event has become extremely popular—over a million people are expected to attend the parade this year.

4. The Chinese have celebrated the New Year for thousands of years.

The first Chinese New Year was celebrated during ancient times. According to mythology, a monster called Nian would appear at the end of each winter to ravage China and kill its people. The townsfolk used bright lights, loud noises, and the color red to scare the predator away. That’s why you see so many red lanterns and firework displays during the holiday. The Chinese invented fireworks in the 12th century, making them the first to use the explosives in a New Year’s celebration.

5. One sixth of the world’s population celebrates Chinese New Year.

The holiday isn’t just for the citizens of China. Countries with large Chinese populations like Taiwan and Singapore celebrate as well.

6. All cleaning is done before the celebration.

People participating in the Chinese New Year festivities will rigorously clean their homes on the 20th day of the 12th lunar month in preparation. This tidying up is symbolic of starting over fresh in the New Year. Some believe that the cleaning will sweep away the evil spirits or bad luck associated with the previous year. During the first day of the New Year, cleaning the house or washing one’s hair is discouraged because it could wash away good luck.

7. The dragon dance is believed to ward off evil spirits.

Unlike their Western cousins, Chinese dragons are friendly creatures associated with good luck, power, wisdom, and rain clouds. The dragon dance is a ceremony performed to scare off evil spirits and bad luck. Long dragons are constructed from wood, fabric, paper, or plastic and are controlled by poles connected to their bottoms; the longer the creation, the luckier it is believed to be. Pole bearers manipulate the dragon to make it appear to dance to the beat of a drum. It’s harder than it looks! The performers must be perfectly synchronized or the whole movement will be thrown off.

8. There are 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac.

According to ancient folklore, the order of the zodiacs was determined by a race orchestrated by the Jade Emperor in which the animals had to cross a river to get to the finish line. The rat finished first because it rode on the naïve ox’s back (the ox came in second). A powerful swimmer, the tiger came in third. The rabbit jumped on rocks to avoid the water. The story goes on like this until we reach the pig, which finished in last place because it took a nap.

Some legends mention a thirteenth animal: the cat. According to one legend, the cat also rode on the ox’s back, but was pushed off by the rat and drowned. Another story suggests that the rat gave the cat the wrong date and the feline missed the race entirely. Both stories result in explaining why cats are always chasing rats.

9. During Chinese New Year, keep your black clothes in your closet.

Color symbolism is an important part of the festivities. Black represents death, so it’s wise to steer clear of that color. Instead, wear bright colors like red, which symbolizes good fortune.

10. Children sleep with money under their pillows.

Elders will award youngsters with red envelopes filled with money in an effort to bring more happiness and good fortune. The contents are less important than the envelope itself, as the act of giving symbolizes good luck. Some children will sleep on their envelopes for seven days before opening to make their loot even luckier, and parents will also slip envelopes under their children’s pillows while they sleep, not unlike the tooth fairy.

11. Everyone turns one year older.

Renri, the seventh day of celebration, is considered the day that all human beings were created. As a result, everyone turns one year older on this day—sort of like a national birthday.

12. Fu signs are sometimes placed upside down.

Red diamond-shaped signs depicting the fu character are commonly placed on or above doors during Chinese New year. The symbol signifies good luck, so by placing it upside down, the residents allow the luck to pour down into the household.

13. On the last day of the celebration, everyone releases lanterns into the sky.

Elaborate paper lanterns that come in many different shapes and sizes are released on Chap Goh Mei (or the Lantern Festival), the fifteenth day of the New Year. Some see this practice as symbolically letting go of the old self to become a new person. Many will write riddles on their lanterns for others to try to solve.

14. Chap Goh Mei is like Valentine’s Day.

The final day of Chinese New Year is also considered a day ripe for love. Many single women will write their phone numbers on mandarin oranges before tossing them into the river. Men waiting downstream will collect the fruits and eat them. The sweetest one means the couple will have the best luck together.

15. 2015 is the year of the goat.

If you were born in 1919, 1931, 1943, 1967, 1979, 1991, or 2003, this is your year! As a “goat,” your lucky colors are brown, red, and purple. Your supposed best months are August and November, and your lucky flowers are primroses and carnations. People with this zodiac are supposed to be kind, amicable, and stable.

Autumn Equinox: The Science Behind the First Day of Fall

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iStock

On September 22, the Sun will shine directly over the equator—the midpoint of the Earth. (For 2018, this moment will happen at 9:54 p.m. ET.) The whole world will thus experience a day and night of equal length. In the Northern Hemisphere, we call this the autumn equinox. It marks the first day of fall. Around the world, people are marking the day with ceremonies, some of them ancient (and some less so).

You might be wondering two things: 1. Why on almost every other day of the year (the vernal equinox being the other exception) do different parts of the world have days and nights of differing length? 2. What do they call the day in the Southern Hemisphere?

A DAY AT THE BEACH

The answer to each of these questions resides in the Earth's axial tilt. The easiest way to imagine that tilt is to think about tanning on the beach. (Stay with me here.) If you lay on your stomach, your back gets blasted by the Sun. You don't wait 30 minutes then flop over and call it a day. Rather, as you tan, every once in a while, you shift positions a little. Maybe you lay a bit more on one side. Maybe you lift a shoulder, move a leg a little. Why? Because you want the Sun to shine directly on a different part of you. You want an even tan.

It might seem a little silly when you think about it. The Sun is a giant fusion reactor 93 million miles away. Solar radiation is hitting your entire back and arms and legs and so on whether or not you adjust your shoulder just so. But you adjust, and it really does improve your tan, and you know this instinctively.

People light candles during the autumn equinox celebration at Neris River waterfront in Vilnius, Lithuania after sunset on September 21, 2013.
People light candles during the autumn equinox celebration at Neris River waterfront in Vilnius, Lithuania after sunset on September 21, 2013.
PETRAS MALUKAS, AFP/Getty Images

The Earth works a lot like that, except it's operating by physics, not instinct. If there were no tilt, only one line of latitude would ever receive the most direct blast of sunlight: the equator. As the Earth revolved around the Sun, the planet would be bathed in sunlight, but it would only be the equator that would always get the most direct hit (and the darkest tan). But the Earth does have a tilt. Shove a pole through the planet with one end sticking out the North Pole and one end sticking out the South, and angle the whole thing by 23.5 degrees. That's the grade of Earth's tilt.

Now spin our little skewered Earth and place it in orbit around the Sun. At various points in the orbit, the Sun will shine directly on different latitudes. It will shine directly on the equator twice in a complete orbit—the fall and spring equinoxes—and at various points in the year, the most direct blast of sunlight will slide up or down. The highest latitude receiving direct sunlight is called the Tropic of Cancer. The lowest point is the Tropic of Capricorn. The poles, you will note, are snow white. They have, if you will, a terrible tan—and that's because they never receive solar radiation from a directly overhead Sun (even during the long polar summer, when the Sun never sinks below the horizon).

WHEN DO THE SEASONS CHANGE?

A Maya priestess conducts an autumn equinox ceremony at El Salvador's Cihuatan Archeological Park.
A Maya priestess conducts an autumn equinox ceremony at El Salvador's Cihuatan Archeological Park.
Jose CABEZAS, AFP/Getty Images

The seasons have nothing to do with the Earth's distance from the Sun. Axial tilt is the reason for the seasons. The Sun is directly over the Tropic of Cancer (66.5 degrees latitude in the Northern Hemisphere) on June 21 or 22. When that occurs, the Northern Hemisphere is in the summer solstice. The days grow long and hot. As the year elapses, the days slowly get shorter and cooler as summer gives way to autumn. On September 21 or 22, the Sun's direct light has reached the equator. Days and night reach parity, and because the Sun is hitting the whole world head-on, every latitude experiences this simultaneously.

On December 21 or 22, the Sun is directly over the Tropic of Capricorn in the Southern Hemisphere, meaning the Northern Hemisphere is receiving the least sunlight it will get all year. The Northern Hemisphere is therefore in winter solstice. Our days are short and nights are long. Parity will again be reached on March 21 or 22, the vernal equinox for the Northern Hemisphere, and the whole process will repeat itself.

Members of The Druid Order of London conduct a ceremony on Primrose Hill to celebrate the Autumn Equinox on September 22, 2008 in London, England.
Members of The Druid Order of London conduct a ceremony on Primrose Hill to celebrate the Autumn Equinox on September 22, 2008 in London, England. The Druid Order of London, which was founded in Oxford in 1245, has been conducting the Autumn Equinox ceremony on Primrose Hill since 1717.
Matt Cardy, Getty Images

Now reverse all of this for the Southern Hemisphere. When we're at autumnal equinox, they're at vernal equinox. Happy first day of spring, Southern Hemisphere!

And welcome to fall, Northern Hemisphere! Enjoy this long day of sunlight, because dark days are ahead. You'll get less and less light until the winter solstice, and the days will grow colder. Take solace, though, in knowing that the whole world is experiencing the very same thing. Now it's the Southern Hemisphere's turn to get ready to spend some time at the beach.

This story first ran in 2016.

The 13 Scariest Haunted Houses in America

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Horror lovers will feel right at home in New York or Ohio. Attractions in those states claim four out of 13 spots on Halloween expert Larry Kirchner’s new list of America’s scariest haunted houses. Drawing upon his 25 years of experience designing and installing Halloween attractions, Kirchner releases the list on his website, Hauntworld.com, each year.

This year, Headless Horseman Hayrides and Haunted Houses in Ulster Park, New York, tops the list. A historic 18th-century manor provides a spooky backdrop to the haunt, which includes a theatrical hayride, corn maze, eight haunted attractions, and escape rooms. “Dr. Dark’s Circus Side Show” (with everyone’s favorite: creepy clowns) will be one of the new themes offered this year, and another new section called “Two Raven’s Manor” will feature stunt actors and a magician.

The runner-up on Kirchner’s list is Field of Screams in Mountville, Pennsylvania. The attraction promises its hayride will be “the most disturbing ride of your life through thick rows of corn.” Expect to see demented doctors, evil nurses, chainsaw and ax murderers, and miscellaneous monsters.

Check out the full list of attractions below, and head to Haunt World’s website for additional details.

1. Headless Horseman Hayrides and Haunted Houses: Ulster Park, New York
2. Field of Screams: Mountville, Pennsylvania
3. The Dent Schoolhouse: Cincinnati, Ohio
4. 13th Gate: Baton Rouge, Louisiana
5. Netherworld: Atlanta, Georgia
6. Nightmare on 13th: Salt Lake City, Utah
7. Haunted Schoolhouse & Laboratory: Akron, Ohio
8. Bennett’s Curse: Baltimore, Maryland
9. Haunted Overload: Lee, New Hampshire
10. Erebus: Pontiac, Michigan
11. Hell’s Gate: Lockport, Illinois
12. The Darkness: St. Louis, Missouri
13. Bayville Screampark: Bayville, New York

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