Chinese New Year Fireworks
Fireworks are a big part of CNY celebrations and usually start at the end of the New Year’s Eve, exactly at midnight. Picture used for illustrative purposes only. Image Credit: Fabio Eckert/Pexels

The world has just rung in 2023, but while the Gregorian New Year is recognised internationally, some countries and regions celebrate their New Year on different dates, following unique cultural traditions.

For example, the UAE celebrates the Islamic New Year – Hijri New Year, following the Islamic calendar and the Balinese people in Indonesia celebrate ‘Nyepi day’ based on the Saka Calendar. As Chinese nationals, we celebrate ‘Chun Jie’ - Spring Festival, or Chinese New Year (CNY), based on the Chinese lunisolar calendar, that identifies days, months, and years based on astronomical occurrence, especially planet earth’s orbital revolution around the Sun, and the movement of the Moon.

Although China adopted the Gregorian calendar since its establishment in 1949, the traditional calendar is still in use for traditional holidays, and – for some people – birthdays. Every year, CNY day (January 1 on the Chinese calendar) falls on different corresponding Gregorian dates. In 2023, CNY will fall on January 22, on the Gregorian calendar.

Origin and development

Traditional Chinese festivals are often based on people’s beliefs in ancient times. According to some modern anthropology and archeology studies, ancient Chinese had two major beliefs: universe belief, and ancestor belief. Many festivals were formed, by ancient people choosing suitable dates to worship Nature and the universe. In the farming community, the start of spring is a crucial period of time. In this time of resetting, many folk customs were formed to honour the sky, the Earth, and the ancestors, as well as to welcome and hope for a prosperous new year.

Nowadays, it has developed into a time where families gather and friends meet, to exchange gifts, say goodbye to an old year, and welcome a new year, with traditional celebratory activities.

House cleaning day

The preparation for CNY can start a couple of months before the event. However, in most families it starts about a week before, during ‘Xiao Nian’ or little New Year. This is when an in-depth house cleaning is carried out, including wiping windows, dusting and painting walls. The pronunciation of dust sounds the same as ‘old’, or ‘past’ in Chinese, so dusting carries the meaning of saying farewell to the old. Stocking of New Year’s goods usually starts after this. Worshiping of folk deities is also carried out. A special folk art – paper cut window decorations, can be seen in homes.

Tofu making

Tofu making is conducted on a specific day, which is December 25 on the Chinese calendar. This date will fall on January 16, 2023 on the Gregorian calendar.

Meat preparation

Again as per the traditional calendar, each year on December 26, meat products are prepared. In villages, it is usually a tradition for households to kill a livestock on this day. Many live markets are also seen on this day for people to stock up on their New Year’s goods. As per the Gergorian calender, it falls on January 17 in 2023.

Steamed bread preparation

Steamed breads are made, mainly in northern China, like in the Hebei province where I come from, for consumption over the New Year holiday on December 27 as per the Chinese calendar, which falls on January 18 on the Gregorian calendar in 2023. Steamed bread is one of the main wheat-based staple foods for people in northern China. The breads can be in different shapes, including the shape of a flower, the shape of an animal head, and so on.

Fireworks, red couplets, and red lanterns

Chinese new year fireworks
Fireworks during Chinese New Year celebrations are connected to the legend associated with the ferocious monster 'Nian'. Picture used for illustrative purposes only. Image Credit: Pixabay

According to legend, a ferocious monster with antenna on its head called ‘Nian’, living deep at the bottom of the sea, goes onshore to villages to devour domesticated animals and hurt residents, on every New Year’s Eve. All residents, old and young, had to hide deep in the mountains to avoid encountering the ‘Nian’. On one particular New Year’s Eve, an old person came to the village and stayed, while all other villagers left and went into hiding. The next day, when the villagers returned, they found that the village was intact. As it turned out, the elderly person had posted red papers, lit red candles, and used loud fireworks to scare ‘Nian’ away.

This legend formed three Chinese New Year traditions: fireworks, couplets on red paper and red lanterns. Fireworks usually start at the end of the New Year’s Eve, exactly at midnight. The couplets are written on two pieces of identical red papers – the papers usually are in a long rectangle shape. The couplets are a pair of poetic, rhyming lines of the same length, and are written in different calligraphy styles. They are posted on two sides of every door and gate. Each red couplet has a short conclusion, which is called ‘hengpi’ - a horizontal batch of text. It is also written on a piece of red rectangle paper and posted on top of the doors or gates. A typical example of a couplet would be “Spring arrives to the world. All flowers are blooming”, paired with ‘Blessing comes to this courtyard. Four seasons are sound”. The horizontal batch, which concludes this couplet, is ‘Happy celebrations to the Spring Festival’.

Couplets on red paper Chinese New Year
Couplets celebrating the arrival of a new year are posted on red paper, on either side of the door or gate. A horizontal batch of text, called 'hengpi', concludes the couplets and is posted atop the gateway. Image Credit: Pixabay

Along with these couplets being posted on either sides of the doors and gates, red lanterns are hung high above the main gate or the main door, prior to New Year’s eve.

New Year’ s Eve gathering meal

Chinese new year feast meal
The ingredients and the names of dishes that are part of the Chinese New Year feast, are designed to carry good wishes. For example, the pronunciation of fish sounds the same as ‘extra’. Thus a fish dish on the New Year’s Eve means, “Plenty is left at the year end.” Image Credit: Angela Roma/Pexels

Family members gather on New Year’s eve to enjoy a feast of many dishes. The ingredients and the names of dishes are designed to carry good wishes. For example, the pronunciation of fish sounds the same as ‘extra’. Thus a fish dish on the New Year’s Eve means, “Plenty is left at the year end.” 

A classic New Year’s Eve dinner includes all types of meat, including chicken, fish, lamb, and so on. Meat dishes are cooked in a variety of ways. For example, one way to cook chicken is to stew it with herbs and spices such as ginger, dried jujube dates and dried goji berries. On the other hand, a popular way to prepare fish is to first steam it and then garnish it with herbs such as thinly sliced spring onion and parsley, and then top it with a special soy sauce. The last step would be to pour hot vegetable oil on top of all these ingredients.

Chinese New Year feast
A classic New Year’s Eve dinner includes all types of meat, including chicken, fish, lamb, and so on. Image Credit: Angela Roma/Pexels

The dinner also includes a variety of vegetables, which are served raw with seasoning, or cooked as hot dishes, or added to meat dishes as condiments. A usual vegetable dish would be ‘di san xian’ – Three Vegetables, which is made from sautéed potatoes, green pepper and eggplant.

Tofu and eggs are common also on the dinner table.

The number of these dishes is decided based on the number of family members – usually we prepare one or two extra dishes, compared to the number of family members. So, if there are 10 people in the family, we would prepare 11 or 12 dishes.

Once everyone has enjoyed these dishes, staple food items are served. The type of staple food depends on the region. In the northern parts of China, dumplings with different fillings, and ‘nian gao’ – a glutinous sweet rice cake made from yellow rice, are the norm.

We also like to have plenty of sides like sunflower seeds, peanuts, walnuts, candies and chocolates, on the table.

The ‘nian gao’, fruits and candies are the only sweet items during a New Year’s Dinner, as desserts are not common in the north. However, nowadays some households like to infuse Western desserts, like a chocolate cake, into their New Year’s dinner.

Red envelope

Chinese New Year Red Envelope
Another tradition associated with the Chinese New Year is gifting money to younger people in a red envelope. Image Credit: Angela Roma/Pexels

From the New Year’s Eve, until the end of the holiday, red envelopes with money inside are handed from the older generation to the younger generation, not only within families and relatives, but also among friends, and sometimes, strangers.

It is said that the colour of the envelope represents happiness, good luck and vitality. Money inside a red envelope is called ‘ya sui qian’ in Chinese, which has a metaphorical meaning of driving away evil and bad luck.

15 days of celebration

The Chinese New Year celebration goes on for 15 days after New Year’s eve, until January 15 on the Chinese calendar, which falls on February 5 on the Gregorian calendar in 2023. However, the official holiday in China for the New Year is only for seven days, starting from New Year’s Eve.

Many of these 15 days have traditions, with related celebratory activities.

The first day is mainly spent with family members on the husband’s side. It is the day where all people dress in brand new clothes and worship different folk deities. Young people need to kneel in front of old people. The breakfast has to be a vegetarian spread, after which we light fireworks.

The second day is for meeting and greeting the wife’s side of the family, and gifts are always given to the hosts.

On the third day, a particular deity is worshiped – the deity of the door and gate. According to legend, going out should be avoided on this day.

It is said that the deity of fortune arrives on the fifth day. So, it is the day where people welcome and worship this deity and many shops open on this day, in hopes of good fortune.

On the twelfth day, people usually go to temples to worship different deities, such as the deity of knowledge, and the deity of health, for good luck.

From the thirteenth day to the fifteenth day, people prepare for different festivals held throughout the country.

On the last day, which is called ‘yuan xiao jie’ – the Lantern festival, Tangyuan – a soupy dish containing small glutinous rice balls with sweet or savoury fillings, is consumed to officially mark the end of the new year celebrations.

Chinese Zodiac animals

There are 12 zodiac animals in total. They correspond to the 12 measurements of time in a day that were used in ancient China. So, they have a sequential order. The 12 zodiac animals are:

1. Mouse
2. Ox
3. Tiger
4. Rabbit
5. Dragon
6. Snake
7. Horse
8. Goat
9. Monkey
10. Rooster
11. Dog
12. Pig.

Each New Year is given a zodiac animal, and year 2023 will be the year of Rabbit. It is expected that many events and commercial activities will use the image of rabbits during the New Year celebration.

How to greet Chinese people on CNY

If you greet a Chinese person on their CNY, a red envelope with money inside is considered a common gift. The amount doesn’t matter – it is the gesture that is important. Alternatively, any gift you think that is suitable for that person is also a good option. It is considered rude and odd to go to peoples’ houses empty handed.

Common phrases to greet a Chinese person during CNY is ‘Gong xi fa cai’ (pronounced Goong see fa tsai), which means ‘I wish you a prosperous life with fortune’, ‘Xin nian kuai le’ (pronounced sin nyan kwoi luh), which means ‘Happy new year’ or ‘wan shi ru yi’ (pronounced wun shir roo ee), which means ‘Good luck in everything you do’.