Of all the traditional Chinese festivals, the new Year is perhaps the most elaborate, colorful, and important. This is a time for the Chinese to congratulate each other and themselves on having passed through another year, a time to finish out the old, and to welcome in the New Year. Common expressions heard at this time are: guonian to have made it through the old year, and bainian to congratulate the New Year.
This is a great time for tourists to come visit Beijing as the city comes alive with all sorts of celebrations and festivities.
The Chinese New Year starts with the New Moon on the first day of the New Year and ends on the full moon 15 days later. The 15th day of the New Year is called the Lantern Festival, which is celebrated at night with lantern displays and children carrying lanterns in a parade.
Although the Gregorian calendar has been officially adopted in China, many festival dates of the old lunar calendar are still popularly celebrated by the Chinese all over the world.
The Chinese calendar
The Chinese calendar is based on a combination of lunar and solar movements. The lunar cycle is about 29.5 days. In order to “catch up” with the solar calendar the Chinese insert an extra month once every few years (seven years out of a 19-yearcycle). This is the same as adding an extra day on leap year. This is why, according to the solar calendar, the Chinese New Year falls on a different date each year. It is always never earlier than Jan. 21 or later than Feb. 19.
Observance of the festival usually begins a week before New Year’s Day during which the Chinese mark the end of the old year by bidding farewell to the God of the Hearth, who departs to make his annual report on the conduct of the household under his charge to the Jade Emperor, the traditional ruler of heaven.
The annual spring cleaning also takes place during these last few days of the old year. Women of the household spend long hours preparing food, both for ancestral offerings and for entertainment.
New Year’s Day is largely spent in the exchange of greetings. People courteously visit their elders and neighbors and call on acquaintances far and near. Cordial phrases such as kung-hsi (“happy greetings”) andfa-ts’ai (“may you gather wealth”) are heard everywhere. Children are particularly excited for this is the day to collect “red envelopes,” money awarded them by parents, relatives, and visitors, and, of course, it is also a day of firecrackers and fireworks.
Most business establishments close for at least three days. Theaters and amusement places swarm with vacationers, who wear their best clothes and try to avoid talking or thinking of unpleasant things. Temple fairs, which include shop stands and acrobatic shows, attract people during this interval of feasting and greeting.
At the full moon, crepe and chiffon lanterns decorate house doors and lamp poles. Farmers and merchants perform dragon or lion dances to usher in a prosperous new year, The festivities subside after the Lantern Festival, the 15th day of the first month.
New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day are celebrated as a family affair, a time of reunion and thanksgiving. The celebration was traditionally highlighted with a religious ceremony given in honor of Heaven and Earth, the gods of the household and the family ancestors.
The sacrifice to the ancestors, the most vital of all the rituals, united the living members with those who had passed away. Departed relatives are remembered with great respect because they were responsible for laying the foundations for the fortune and glory of the family.
The presence of the ancestors is acknowledged on New Year’s Eve with a dinner arranged for them at the family banquet table. The spirits of the ancestors, together with the living, celebrate the onset of the New Year as one great community. The communal feast is called “surrounding the stove” or weilu. It symbolizes family unity and honors the past and present generations.