Folk Customs of Chinese Lunar New Year

Chinese Spring Festival, also called Chinese Lunar New Year, is the most important festival for Chinese people. It is also the time for the whole families to get together, which is similar with Christmas Day to the Westerners.

Spring Festival

The Spring Festival comes on the first day of Chinese lunar calendar, officially ends on the 15th day of the first lunar month, which is known as the Lantern Festival. But the preparations for the New Year start 7 days before hand. There are many customs during this special festival, and some customs have been observed for thousands of years.

December 23 of the Lunar Calendar

Custom: Worshiping the Kitchen God

The Kitchen God is the most important of a plethora of Chinese domestic gods that protect the hearth and family. It is believed that on the 23rd day of the 12th lunar month (also called Xiao Nian), he returns to Heaven to report the activities of every household over the past year to the Jade Emperor, emperor of the heaven. The Jade Emperor either rewards or punishes a family based on Kitchen God’s yearly report. Therefore, worshipping the Kitchen God aims to “please him.” People put out some sweet and sticky foods, such as rice dumplings and malted sugar. In this way, the lips of the Kitchen God will be stuck together, and he cannot say any wrong doings of the family. Thus the family can lead an auspicious life.

Worshiping the Kitchen God

December 24 of the Lunar Calendar

Custom: Cleaning the house

In Chinese, the pronunciation of “尘” (dust) and “陈” (stale things) are the same, so cleaning the dust before the Spring Festival means kicking poverty and bad luck out of the house. This tradition shows the good wish of putting away old things and welcoming a new life, making everything look fresh in the new year.

December 25 of the Lunar Calendar

Custom: Pasting Window Paper and Making Tofu

The times for pasting window paper are gone. Nowadays, the tradition is replaced by cleaning windows. Tofu is homophonic with “Toufu (first fortune of the year)”, so it is considered as a good food which brings happiness. In order to prepare it for the Spring Festival, people begin to grind beans and make tofu today.

December 26 of the Lunar Calendar

Custom: Shopping for the Spring Festival

When there was insufficient food in the past, the majority of ordinary people could enjoy a comparatively lavish feast only during the Spring Festival, and shopping for the Spring Festival could be started on this day. But nowadays, people can do shopping whenever they like. Besides meat and fish, people also purchase cigarettes, wines, all kinds of candies and fruits, gifts and festive ornaments.

December 27 of the Lunar Calendar

Custom: Bathing and Going to the Market

According to the traditional folk customs of the Han ethnic group, people should take a bath and do their washings to get rid of bad luck from the past year and welcome the New Year. Besides the purpose of purchasing goods, people also go shopping to enjoy the exciting atmosphere of the Spring Festival in advance.

December 28 of the Lunar Calendar

Custom: Leaving Dough and Pasting Spring Festival Couplets

People in north China mainly eat noodles. They begin to leaven dough and prepare cooked wheaten food for the Spring Festival. Today or in the daytime of December 30 of lunar calendar, people have the traditions to paste spring festival couplets, Chinese character 福(fu), paper cuttings, or New Year pictures.

The couplets are composed of neat, antithetic, compact and ingenious words to express good wishes. It’s a unique Chinese literary form.

Pasting Spring Festival Couplets

The Chinese character 福 means good luck and fortune. People usually put up a poster with this character turned upside down on it, because the Chinese word “倒”, which means upside down, sounds the same to “到”, which means arrival. It shows people’s yearning for a happy life. But according to the tradition, the character 福 put up on the main door should not be upside down.

Chinese Character 福

Many people like to use paper cuttings, known as “window flowers”, to decorate windows. It’s a folk art with a long history. Mythological legends, opera stories, flowers, birds, insects and fish can all provide inspiration for a paper cutting.

Paper Cuttings

The New Year Picture is an age-old folk art. The custom originated from the “Door God” that is believed to guard the doors to homes. The New Year Pictures are often brightly colored, bringing good fortune and happiness to thousands of families. The three most famous production places for New Year Pictures in China are Taohuawu of Suzhou, Yangliuqing of Tianjin and Weifang of Shandong.

New Year Picture

December 29 of the Lunar Calendar

Custom: Paying Tribute to Ancestors

Preparations for the Spring Festival should be completed today, the day before New Year’s Eve. Worshipping ancestors is also a major event on this day, by which people express their gratitude for their ancestors.

December 30 of the Lunar Calendar

Custom: December 30 of lunar calendar, also called “Chuxi” (New Year’s Eve), is the last day of the year according to Chinese lunar calendar. It is the time to say goodbye to the last year and welcome the New Year, and it’s also the climax of the whole Spring Festival. On this day, people will have reunion dinner, watch Spring Festival Gala, give lucky money, set firecrackers and fireworks, and stay up the whole night.

The dishes for the reunion dinner are of a wide variety, including chicken, duck, fish, pork, beef and vegetables, and they all imply the meaning of good luck. For example, “fish” shares a similar pronunciation with “Yu” which stands for “abundance”. During dinner time, people also say some words of blessing to the elderly or each other,  such as, “I wish you good health and a long life”, “Wish you a happy new year and a good fortune in the coming year”, etc.

It is said that the lucky money (Yasui money or hongbao) can drive out evil spirits, thus children who get lucky money will be safe in the new year. The lucky money is traditionally given in red envelopes by the married couples or the elder to the unmarried junior members of the family.

Lucky Money

At midnight, people will set off firecrackers and fireworks to welcome the New Year, and the cracking sounds are perfect to create a joyous atmosphere. Some people will go to toll New Year bells and offer incense at 24:00 in a nearby temple. Every year, large temples in different regions hold grand ritual for blessings on New Year’s Eve.

The Ringing of the Bell at Hanshan Temple on Chinese New Year's Eve

Some people will stay up the whole night on New Year’s Eve (called shou sui in Chinese). This tradition had two meanings in ancient times. The old stayed up to bid farewell to the old year, which reminds them to cherish every moment of time. While for the young, staying up was an act to wish their parents a long life.

January 1 of the Lunar Calendar

Custom: Paying New Year Visits

Visiting relatives and friends is still considered a major event on the first day of the first Lunar month. It is a custom for younger generation to pay New Year calls (bai nian) to elders; the elderly, in return, would give the young lucky money. Receiving lucky money from the relatives and friends of the parents’ is the favorite “event” of every child during the Spring Festival. Also, today is the birthday of the “broom”, so it is taboo to use broom as it will clear out good luck and fortune. People also can’t pour out water or throw out rubbish as they will lose money.

Spring Festival Temple Fair in Beijing

Temple Fair is also one of the most prominent features of the New Year celebrations in many cities in China. In Beijing, the Spring Festival Temple Fairs start today (some start as early as December 29 or 30 of the lunar calendar), end on January 6 or 7 of the lunar calendar (some will last until the January 15 of the lunar calendar).

January 2 of the Lunar Calendar

Custom: Married Daughters Return to Their Parents’ Home

Married daughters visit their parents with their husbands on this day, so today is also called “welcome son-in-law day”. The couple must bring some gifts and hongbao along with them, and give them to children from the family of wife’s side. The couple has to return the husband’s family before dinner.

January 3 of the Lunar Calendar

Custom: Staying at Home

According to tradition, people should not pay visits to others today as it is very likely to quarrel with others on this day. However, this has already become obsolete. It is a rare opportunity for people to get reunited during the Spring Festival, so less and less people follow this tradition.

January 4 of the Lunar Calendar

Custom: Worshiping the God of Wealth

It is the day for worshipping the God of Wealth. In the past, if an employee was not invited to worship the God of Wealth with the boss, he/she had to resign according to the unwritten rule.

January 5 of the Lunar Calendar

Custom: Breaking Five

It is the day to “drive away five ghosts of poverty” (poverty in intelligence, knowledge, literacy, fate, and friendship). People light firecrackers in the morning from inside to outside of their houses to scare away all the “ghosts”.

January 6 of the Lunar Calendar

Custom: Opening for Business

After lighting firecrackers, shops reopen for business on this day. It is said that boys of the age of 12 are the most welcomed as the number of “12” is double “6”, which means “everything will go well smoothly”.

January 15 of the Lunar Calendar (Lantern Festival)

Custom: Eating Tangyuan and Appreciating Lanterns

As the first full moon night in the new year, the fifteenth day is also called Lantern Festival, named after the long-time tradition of appreciating lanterns. You should not miss tangyuan, a kind of glutinous rice dumplings, often stuffed with white sugar, rose petals, sesames, and so on. The stuffing and round shape symbolize sweet life and reunion. Lantern Festival draws the curtain of the entire Chinese New Year celebrations.

Jiangsu Qinhuai Lantern Festival

 

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