The Year of the Tiger is fast approaching! If you haven’t heard, the Chinese New Year – a celebration of the beginning of the new year on the Chinese lunar calendar – begins this year on February 1st.
Even if you’re not familiar with the specific festivities, you'd likely recognize the Chinese Zodiac, a rotating roster of twelve animals, each linked to specific traits or characteristics. This year’s celebration will mark the change from 2021, the Year of the Ox, to 2022, the Year of the Tiger.
Also known as the Spring Festival, Chinese New Year is traditionally celebrated from Chinese New Year’s Eve until the Lantern Festival two weeks later, but celebrations (and preparations) can begin days or weeks earlier, and many of the most common traditions date back thousands of years.
Here are some of the most celebrated Chinese New Year customs, and what they mean to the billions who will be celebrating the coming of the Year of the Tiger.
Cleaning and Decorating the House
There’s nothing like a little spring, err, winter cleaning! This tradition technically takes place before the Chinese New Year, but it’s still an important part of Chinese New Year festivities. Prior to the beginning of the Spring Festival, people give their houses a meticulous sweeping, dusting, and cleaning. This is to clear their homes of all the bad luck that has accumulated throughout the previous year and to make room for all the good luck of the coming year.
After the cleaning is done, it’s time to decorate! Colored in festive red and gold and symbolizing luck and good fortune in the new year, common decorations include paper lanterns, door couplets, and paper cuttings. Many families also put up a kumquat tree in their home. The more fruit on the tree, the more luck you’ll have in the new year!
Family Reunion Dinner
Just like Thanksgiving in America, Chinese New Year holds the same promise of sumptuous seasonal foods shared with loved ones. Commonly called the reunion dinner because generations of family travel from all over to, well, reunite, this single meal is widely regarded as the pre-eminent meal of the year. Fish, chicken, duck, sticky rice, and spring rolls are all common sights at the reunion dinner table, but the one dish you’re guaranteed to see is dumplings, and not just because their preparation gives everyone ample time to spend together! The shape of dumplings is similar to the shape of gold ingots used in ancient China as currency, and so the copious consumption of dumplings represents wealth and future fortune.
Across generations and across cultures, we all agree: There’s no better way to usher in the new year than with a bang. Chinese New Year is historically celebrated with fireworks because Nian, a lion-like monster of Chinese mythology, arose from the ocean at the beginning of each Spring Festival to devour people. Each year, fireworks were set off because people realized that the loud combustion of the fireworks, coupled with the shredded scarlet paper that fell back to the earth following the explosions, succeeded in keeping Nian away.
The Spring Festival is frequently a time of great generosity; it is not uncommon for children to receive new clothes or for adult friends to exchange gifts of tea or fruit. But the most common gift is the red lai see. These packets usually contain gifts of money - sometimes just a little, sometimes quite a lot! When giving gifts, there are several unspoken etiquette rules to follow as well. Gifts of red and gold are welcome, black and white (ominous omens of death), not so much. Gifts are also typically given in even numbers, rather than odd. And, if giving money, you’ll want to avoid any amount that has the number 4 in it at all costs. Consider it similar to the number 13 in American culture - a very, very bad omen.
One of the most iconic events of the Chinese New Year is the dragon dance. Typically performed by a team of trained dancers, the dragon dance is conducted by moving a giant dragon puppet in a rolling fashion using poles distributed along the length of the dragon. Individual dancers alone cannot make the dragon dance; by synchronizing their movements as a team, however, each member can contribute to the appearance of a continuous whole. With a little practice, the dragon can be made to corkscrew and flip, a crowd pleasing move sure to wow any audience!
Visiting Temples and Worshiping Ancestors
The new year also offers ample time for reflection. With two weeks off, Chinese New Year sees the return of many Chinese to their native temples; these worshippers typically enter their hometown temples on the third day of the Spring Festival, where they light incense and revere their ancestors. Gifts of wine and food are also offered to ancestors before the reunion dinner, so that the deceased can eat first and join in the festivities. It is common to offer a deceased family member their favorite dish as signs of respect, loyalty, and piety.
Chinese New Year is one of the most popular and celebrated holidays in the world, and festivities extend far beyond Chinese borders. In many countries in Southeast Asia, it’s a public holiday, and some of the biggest cities in Europe, North America, and Australia all conduct official celebrations. This February would be the perfect time to visit Chinatown in your city, and see what Chinese New Year is really all about!