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 the yearly milestone as well.

Whether you’re visiting, studying or even working in China, here’s what you need to know about making the most of Chinese New Year.

What is Chinese New Year?

Also known as Lunar New Year, Chinese New Year is the most important and auspicious festival in China.

Historically, it’s a time to celebrate deities and ancestors. But nowadays, Chinese New Year is all about family reunions, enjoying a hearty meal together and ringing in the new year.

The festival is celebrated on a different day each year, depending on the moon. This makes it quite unique.

In most cases, it falls on the second new moon following the winter solstice – the time of year when day and night are of equal length.

While it’s hard to calculate the exact date of the holiday ahead of time, you can be sure it will in January or February.

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Chinese zodiac

In China, each year is identified by a different zodiac animal.

Each zodiac animal carries qualities that influence the year, what everyone expects from the year, and any children who are born in that year.

Many Chinese people take their zodiac animal and year of birth very seriously, and this is usually a key part of their new year celebrations.

To understand this a little better, here’s a basic explanation of each sign.

Rat

Birth years: 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.

Ox

Birth years: 1925, 1937, 1949, 1961, 1973, 1985, 1997, 2009, 2021, 2033.

This sign is associated with hard work and a strong sense of responsibility.

Tiger

Birth years: 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.

Rabbit

Birth years: 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.

Dragon

Birth years: 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.

Chinese dragon

The dragon is one of the most powerful creatures in the Chinese Zodiac.

Snake

Birth years: 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.

Horse

Birth years: 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.

Goat

Birth years: 1931, 1943, 1955, 1967, 1979, 1991, 2003, 2015, 2027.

This sign is associated with having a pure and kind heart while still holding your own opinions.

Monkey

Birth years: 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.

Rooster

Birth years: 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!

Dog

Birth years: 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.

Pig

Birth years: 1935, 1947, 1959, 1971, 1983, 1995, 2007, 2019, 2031.

Associated with a calm appearance, inner strength, good manners and a good heart.

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What to expect at 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.

Red lanterns

Lunar New Year is the most important Chinese holiday.

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.

Firecrackers everywhere

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.

Fish to celebrate new year

Fish is a popular dish during the Lunar New 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. You’ll also see plenty of red ornaments and decorations in homes, businesses and in the streets.

Common decorations include:

  • Couplets, e.g. lines of poetry on a scroll
  • Lanterns
  • Lucky knots
  • Paper cuts
  • Flowers.

Red packets

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.

In Mandarin, red packets/envelopes are referred to as hóng bāo (紅包).

The younger generation are into digital red packets. Many play red envelope games on the popular app, WeChat, where billions of red envelopes containing real money of varying amounts are exchanged.

You can read more about popular Chinese apps here.

Once you get married, you generally stop receiving red packets. The expectation is you would then give to your own children.

A mass exodus

Unlike in Western countries, the Lunar 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.

Migrant Chinese workers

Migrant Chinese workers travel great distances at this time of year.

This isn’t a time for you to travel across China, 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. It’s a unique experience.

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What do people do on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day?

For New Year’s Eve, people return home to have the most important meal of the year with their families. This is called the reunion dinner.

Popular and symbolic foods to enjoy at the reunion dinner include:

  • Roasted pig (peace)
  • Fish (surplus)
  • Shrimp (fortune)
  • Dumplings (wealth)
  • Noodles (longevity)
  • Glutinous rice balls (family reunion)
  • Glutinous rice cake (prosperity)
  • Bamboo shoots (going onward and upwards)
  • Oranges (fullness and wealth).

In the evening, many people set off fireworks and firecrackers to scare away bad luck.

The first meal of the new year, on New Year’s Day, is generally enjoyed with family.

Family members may wear new clothes and visit relatives and friends, bringing gifts with them along with red packets for the young and elderly.

Some unusual Lunar 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:

Gardening

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 you drop

A new outfit or wardrobe is often seen as a great way to start out the new year on the right foot.

Removing cobwebs

In the weeks leading up to Chinese New Year, many 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.

Chinese radish for new year

Radishes are included in cake for Chinese New Year.

A guide to your New Year in China

Are you in China at this time of year?

If so, some of the best ways to explore this holiday include:

  • Buying earplugs so you can sleep in
  • Stocking up on food ahead of time so you’re not left short (depending on the city you’re in, shops and restaurants may be closed for a few days)
  • Spending time with Chinese friends
  • Playing red envelope games on WeChat
  • Attending fireworks or festivals in your city
  • 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. It’s a welcome break from the usual frenetic pace of life in China.

And finally, if you’re heading there soon, don’t forget to get a China VPN so you can access the internet. It’s a must for all travelers.

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. Take a read!