8 Festive Chinese New Year Traditions
Steeped in myth and following traditions that date back thousands of years, Chinese New Year is a 15-day celebration aimed at bringing families together and ensuring good fortune for the year ahead. Here are a few ways people cast off the old and welcome in the new.
1. FAMILY FEASTS
For many Chinese, New Year’s Eve dinner is the biggest, most festive meal of the year. Families gather to feast on dishes like rice balls, turnip cake, fish, spring rolls, and dumplings. Cooks emphasize dishes thought to bring luck, like long noodles and a rice, fruit, and nut medley known as Eight-Treasure Rice.
2. RED ENVELOPES
Gift giving is an important part of Chinese New Year. Hóng bāo (or "red envelopes") with money tucked inside are presented to children and the elderly as a show of gratitude for the year past and the hope for prosperity in the months to come. These days, the tradition has gone digital, with transfer services enabling people to send money through email, text message, and other platforms.
3. CLEANING HOUSE
A new year signals a fresh start, which means many Chinese will wash, sweep, and de-clutter their homes in preparation for the year ahead. It's good exercise, but make sure to do it before the New Year arrives on January 28. Cleaning shortly after the new year arrives is thought to sweep away good luck.
4. DECORATE WITH RED
In Chinese culture, red is the color of prosperity and good luck. People hang red banners, lanterns, and other accents in an effort to bestow good fortune on their homes. It’s also customary to put out bowls of oranges and apples, along with arrangements of flowers like peonies and orchids. A blossoming flower is thought to foretell blossoming wealth.
5. NEW CLOTHES, NEW 'DO
A fresh start extends to a person’s appearance, as well. In the days and weeks leading up to the new year, many Chinese take time to get a haircut, buy new clothes, and take other steps towards arranging their best look for the year ahead. As with home cleaning, this needs to be done before New Year's Day. Get a haircut in the days following the new year, and you’ll be cutting away your good luck and prosperity.
6. DRAGON DANCES
It’s a familiar sight at Chinese New Year festivals the world over: long, snaking dragons winding their way through the streets, spurred onward by pounding drums. These elaborate dragon floats, meant to celebrate the mythical river beast that symbolizes good luck and chases away evil spirits, require the coordinated movements of anywhere from two to more than a dozen well-trained performers. The longer a dragon dance lasts, the more luck it will bring to those watching.
The noise and flash of fireworks are thought to ward off evil spirits as the new year begins. Elaborate shows go off throughout China, while U.S. cities like New York and San Francisco stage their own elaborate displays. Each year, New York’s Chinatown rings in the new year with more than 600,000 rounds of firecrackers.
8. LANTERN FESTIVAL
The 15th and final day of the New Year’s celebration is marked with the serenely beautiful lantern festival, which sees streets, homes, and temples adorned with colorful lanterns meant to bestow good fortune for the coming year. Lanterns come in all shapes and sizes, including those fashioned after the year’s animal (this year it’s the rooster). Some lamps also come with riddles (called dēng mí) written on them to keep children busy. (For example: What belongs to you but others use it more than you do? Answer: Your name.)