Chinese New Year is the most popular holiday in China and it’s also one of the most exciting.
Everyone in the country stops for this holiday and there are very specific ways to celebrate this yearly milestone as well.
Whether you’re visiting, living or working in China, here’s what you need to know about making the most of Chinese New Year.
What is Chinese New Year?
Chinese New Year is one of the most popular holidays in China and is a time to celebrate deities and ancestors.
It’s celebrated on a different day each year because this holiday isn’t about a specific date, it’s about the moon phases and equinoxes.
It’s held on the second new moon before the March equinox – the time of year when the day and night are of equal length.
As a result, the actual dates of this holiday are hard to calculate ahead of time.
The exact date of Chinese New Year is also influenced by the shortest day of the year and is celebrated one to two months after this date, which is usually around December 21st or 22nd.
In China, each year is identified by a different zodiac animal.
These animals are associated with different qualities that affect the year and any children born in that year.
Many Chinese people take their zodiac animal and their year of birth very seriously, and this is usually a key part of their New Year’s celebrations.
The Chinese zodiac is fairly complex and difficult for outsiders to understand.
Each zodiac animal carries qualities that influence the year, what everyone expects from the year, and any children who are born in that year.
To understand this a little better, here’s a very basic explanation of each sign:
The Rat: 1924, 1936, 1948, 1960, 1972, 1984, 1996, 2008, 2020, 2032.
This sign is associated with saving and collecting, particularly when it comes to money. Its strengths are flexibility and intelligence, but people born in this year can be a little timid.
The Ox: 1925, 1937, 1949, 1961, 1973, 1985, 1997, 2009, 2021, 2033.
This sign is associated with hard work and a strong sense of responsibility.
The Tiger: 1926, 1938, 1950, 1962, 1974, 1986, 1998, 2010, 2022.
A powerful sign associated with leadership and high self-esteem. It can also be associated with cruelty and fear when expressed negatively.
The Rabbit: 1915, 1927, 1939, 1951, 1963, 1975, 1987, 1999, 2011, 2023.
This is a peaceful sign, which makes for a quiet, patient and gentle year and children.
The Dragon: 1916, 1928, 1940, 1952, 1964, 1976, 1988, 2000, 2012, 2024.
Another powerful sign that’s associated with romance and adventure as well as a sense of mystery that baffles most people.
The Snake: 1917, 1929, 1941, 1953, 1965, 1977, 1989, 2001, 2013, 2025, 2037.
This is a sign that’s associated with having different inner and outer natures. On the outside the snake might seem cold, but it’s all enthusiasm and warmth on the inside and people born under this sign are said to be the same.
The Horse: 1930, 1942, 1954, 1966, 1978, 1990, 2002, 2014, 2026.
The horse is associated with positivity and incredible energy as well as a determination to succeed that takes people of this sign far.
The Goat: 1931, 1943, 1955, 1967, 1979, 1991, 2003, 2015, 2027.
This sign is associated with having a pure and kind heart while still holding fast to one’s own opinions.
The Monkey: 1932, 1944, 1956, 1968, 1980, 1992, 2004, 2016, 2028.
People born under the monkey are driven by their own interests and curiosity. If they like something they work hard, but they can be lazy if they aren’t interested.
The Rooster: 1933, 1945, 1957, 1969, 1981, 1993, 2005, 2017, 2029.
A sign that’s associated with independence and ambition, so this is a good year in which to work towards a promotion!
The Dog: 1922, 1934, 1946, 1958, 1970, 1982, 1994, 2006, 2018, 2030, 2042.
A sign associated with being good-hearted, loyal, faithful and courageous. People born under this sign inspire others and can be good leaders.
The Pig: 1935, 1947, 1959, 1971, 1983, 1995, 2007, 2019, 2031.
Associated with a calm appearance, inner strength, good manners and a good heart.
What to expect in Chinese New Year
If you’re in China during the new year, you’ll probably notice that it’s very different to celebrations back home. If it’s your first Chinese New Year holiday, here’s what to expect.
A really long holiday
Chinese New Year is the longest and most important holiday in China.
Students will have up to two weeks off school and Chinese workers will usually have a week off as well.
However, they’ll also have to work on the weekend before the holiday to make up some of the time, which makes it a little less special.
Setting off firecrackers is a common way to celebrate everything in China.
It doesn’t seem to matter what time of day it is, so on special days people will start setting them off the moment the sun rises. This is very, very annoying if you’re a late sleeper!
And this goes double for New Year’s. People will set off firecrackers anywhere and at any time.
So, watch where you’re walking and buy earplugs if you want to sleep in to a reasonable hour.
The Spring Festival Gala
Chinese New Year festival is kick-started by CCTV’s Spring Festival Gala. This is a New Year’s special on television that can be a little propaganda heavy.
It’s a variety show that boasts a mix of Chinese culture, commerce and politics, and it has a cult following in China.
The best food ever
If you’ve been in China for a while, then you might think you’ve already tried all the food this country has to offer.
You’ll change your mind during Chinese New Year. This is a family holiday dedicated to home cooking and traditional dishes.
Eating fish at this time of year is considered particularly lucky because the Chinese word ‘yu’ is very close to the Chinese word for surplus.
The idea is that you’ll be more likely to enjoy a surplus of money and luck if you indulge in fish at this auspicious time of year.
Everything turns red
Chinese people believe that the color red brings luck and good fortune and scares away evil spirits.
So, during the celebrations you’ll see lots of people wearing red and hanging red ornaments and decorations in their homes and in the streets.
And when they give gifts of money, another common tradition, they’ll do so in small red packets or envelopes, to offer some added fortune.
The younger generation are into digital red packets.
Many play online red envelope games on WeChat, where billions of red envelopes containing real money of varying amounts are exchanged.
A mass exodus
Unlike in Western countries, Chinese New Year is a family holiday.
Everyone goes back to their hometown to celebrate, which results in one of the largest annual migrations in the world.
Everyone travels at this time, which means buses and trains will be full for months in advance.
This isn’t a time for you to travel, unless you really feel the need to brave the crowds.
And once everyone’s gone, you’ll be able to wander around a city that suddenly feels almost empty, and that’s a unique experience.
Some unusual New Year activities
Chinese New Year is dedicated to family and the home and the way it’s celebrated is very different to what you’ll experience back home.
This isn’t a time to drink champagne and wait for the ball to drop with thousands of strangers.
Instead, when you’re in China you’re more likely to see the locals doing the following:
The new year is a time of fresh beginnings, and this often means giving any plants in or around the house a new lease on life too.
Shopping ’til they drop
A new outfit or wardrobe is often seen as a great way to start out the new year on the right foot.
During the new year, many Chinese families will clean their house from top to bottom. This is a way of starting off the year properly and removing any bad luck.
And yes, that means they’ll sweep away a lot of cobwebs!
Eating radish cake
Chinese radish, which is white and green or all white, is an important ingredient during the new year.
It brings good luck, health and fortune, which is why Chinese people often make it into a cake or put it in other New Year’s dishes.
Giving away money
Giving gifts of money to children and older family members is a very common tradition at New Year’s.
These gifts bring the family closer together and are given in traditional red envelopes, to ensure even more good luck.
The only time children aren’t given money is after they’re married. And then they start giving money to their own children anyway!
A guide to your New Year in China
During Lunar New Year, you’ll have a lot of free time to explore. And some of the best ways to explore this holiday include:
- Buying earplugs so you can sleep in
- Depending on what city you’re in, shops and restaurants may be closed for a few days over the New Year as people go home. So, stock up on food ahead of time so you’re not left short
- Spending time with Chinese friends
- Playing red envelope games on WeChat
- Attending fireworks or festivals in your city or town
- Visiting tourist sites in your city while everyone’s away and they’re nice and quiet. Just make sure they’re open first!
Whatever you do, make sure you take the time to rest, relax and enjoy this time of year.
Because it’s a welcome break from the usual frenetic pace of life in China.
Did you like my blog on Chinese New Year? If so, you might also like the one I wrote about the best Chinese history books.