Chinese New Year, also known as Lunar New Year or Spring Festival, is China’s most important festival. It is also the most important celebration for families and includes a week of official public holiday.
The history of the Chinese New Year festival can be traced back to about 3,500 years ago. Chinese New Year has evolved over a long period of time and its customs have undergone a long developmental process.
When is Chinese New Year?
The date of the Chinese New Year is determined by the lunar calendar. The holiday falls on the second new moon after the winter solstice on December 21. Each year the New Year in China falls on a different date than on the Gregorian calendar. The dates usually range sometime between January 21 and February 20.
Why is it called the Spring Festival?
Even though it is winter, the Chinese New Year is popularly known as the Spring Festival in China. Because it starts from the Beginning of Spring (the first of the twenty-four terms in coordination with the changes of Nature), it marks the end of winter and the beginning of spring.
The Spring Festival marks a new year on the lunar calendar and represents the desire for a new life.
Legend of the Origin of Chinese New Year
Chinese New Year is steeped with stories and myths. One of the most popular legends is about the mythical beast Nian (Year). He ate livestock, crops, and even people on the eve of a new year.
To prevent Nian from attacking people and causing destruction, people put food at their doors for Nian.
It’s said that a wise old man figured out that Nian was scared of loud noises (firecrackers) and the color red. So, people put red lanterns and red scrolls on their windows and doors to stop Nian from coming inside. Crackling bamboo (later replaced by firecrackers) was lit to scare Nian away.
Chinese New Year’s Origin in the Shang Dynasty
Chinese New Year has a history of about 3,500 years. Its exact beginning date is not recorded. Some people believe that Chinese New Year originated in the Shang Dynasty (1600–1046 BC), when people held sacrificial ceremonies in honor of gods and ancestors at the beginning or the end of each year.
Chinese Calendar “Year” Established in the Zhou Dynasty
The term Nian first appeared in the Zhou Dynasty (1046–256 BC). It had become a custom to offer sacrifices to ancestors or gods, and to worship nature in order to bless harvests at the turn of the year.
Chinese New Year Date Was Fixed in the Han Dynasty
The date of the festival, the first day of the first month in the Chinese lunar calendar, was fixed in the Han Dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD). Certain celebration activities became popular, such as burning bamboo to make a loud cracking sound.
In the Wei and Jin Dynasties
In the Wei and Jin dynasties (220–420 AD), apart from worshiping gods and ancestors, people began to entertain themselves. The customs of a family getting together to clean their house, having a dinner, and staying up late on New Year’s Eve originated among common people.
More Chinese New Year Activities from the Tang to Qing Dynasties
The prosperity of economies and cultures during the Tang, Song, and Qing dynasties accelerated the development of the Spring Festival. The customs during the festival became similar to those of modern times.
Setting off firecrackers, visiting relatives and friends, and eating dumplings became important parts of the celebration.
More entertaining activities arose, such as watching dragon and lion dances during the Temple Fair and enjoying lantern shows.
The function of the Spring Festival changed from a religious one to an entertaining and social ones, more like that of today.
In Modern Times
In 1912, the government decided to abolish Chinese New Year and the lunar calendar. It adopted the Gregorian calendar instead and made January 1 the official start of the New Year.
After 1949, Chinese New Year was renamed the Spring Festival. It was listed as a nationwide public holiday.
Nowadays, many traditional activities are disappearing but new trends have been generated. CCTV (China Central Television) Spring Festival Gala, shopping online, WeChat red envelopes, and overseas travel make Chinese New Year more interesting and colorful.
Here are two good website if you would like to read more, see charts, and get the answers to many questions about Chinese New Year: