Chinese New Year - When, Why, How and What

Why do we celebrate?

There are many tales chronicling the story of Chinese New Year or Guo Nian, but the most well known is the story of the defeat of the demon Nian. Nian was the name given to a monster who terrorized a village in China on the first day of every new year. He would come out of the mountains and eat livestock, grain and anyone who was outside. Relief from his terror only came when a God, who disguised himself as an old man, taught the villagers that Nian was afraid of the colour red, strange creatures and of loud noises. This gave way to the Chinese traditions of hanging red signs in doorways, making loud noises with drums and fireworks, and the use of face masks, lanterns and dragon/lion dances.

The dates of CNY 2020

The date of which Chinese New Year falls is determined by the Chinese lunar calendar, but it will always fall between the dates of January 21st and February 20th. This year’s dates are January 25th to February 8th.

What is the Zodiac cycle?

The Chinese zodiac cycle is a twelve year cycle that was used in ancient China to date years. Each year in the 12 year cycle is represented by one of twelve animals: The rat, the ox, the tiger, the rabbit, the dragon, the snake, the horse, the goat, the monkey, the rooster, the dog and the pig. Each of these animals represents certain personality traits that Chinese folklore suggest can be found in the people born in the corresponding years.

This coming year is the Year of the Rat, the first year of a 12-year cycle. Rat years in the past include: 1924, 1936, 1948, 1960, 1972, 1984, 1996, 2008, 2020. According to Chinese folklore, those born in the Year of the Rat are are likable by all. They are sensitive to other’s emotions but are stubborn with their opinion. They are kind, but their words may seem impolite and rude due to poor communication skills. On the financial side, they like saving and but can be stingy. Their love for hoarding will sometimes cause them to waste money on unnecessary things.


Traditional Chinese meals during the festival include fish 鱼yu (as the chinese word for fish sounds like the word for surplus), Chinese dumplings 饺子 jiǎozi (as they look like Chinese silver ingots), and Niángāo (a glutinous rice cake) 年糕 (as the word niangao sounds like the phrase nian-nian gao which means “Getting higher year-after-year by year”).

What about lai see?

For decades the Chinese people have handed out these ‘good fortune’ red envelopes among communities. Some say this tradition dates back as far as the Sung Dynasty (960 - 1279). These red envelopes (“hong bao” in Mandarin and “lai see” in Cantonese) are used as a channel for sending good wishes and luck. The colour red is used by the Chinese to symbolise energy, happiness, and good luck. The red packaging of the lai see is thought to bring prosperity rather than the money inside. The purpose of the money is to bring more happiness and blessings to the recipient. The tradition of giving out money during Lunar New Year is similar to giving Christmas gifts in Western culture.

Lai see is given in a particular cultural fashion – from a higher position to a lesser position such as boss to employee, parent to child, married to single. If you live in a residential complex with staff, you should give lai see to your security guard, cleaners, and doorman, etc. The amount you put in the red packets is your choice. Depending on how close you are to the person, you can choose to give more. Bosses, married couples, and older relatives tend to give higher amounts.

There are a couple rules to keep in mind to avoid making a faux pas. Try to use a single, crisp or new bank note. It should be a single bill with an even amount. Avoid putting two $20 bills into a lai see packer because it equals $40 and "four" sounds similar to "die" in Cantonese. Due to the fact lai see is given as an individual gift; it is impolite to open in front of the person who gave you the lai see.

Leading up to Chinese New Year, lots of people will be heading to the banks for new notes which are printed especially for lai see. Plan ahead by finding out when these will be released and hop in a queue. HSBC mentioned theirs will be ready January 14th. You can get your lai see packets in most street markets or from the bank.

Lai see is handed out during the first 15 days of Lunar New Year. This is brought to an end at the Lantern festival on the 15th day.

Why fireworks?

Traditionally, bamboo stems filled with gunpowder were used in order to drive evil spirits away. This practice evolved into the use of hundreds of firecrackers, each rolled up in red paper, strung on a long fused string and hung. Once lit, the explosions are thought to scare away evil spirits. In major cities such as Beijing, Guangzhou, and Shanghai, these firecrackers have been banned by the government due to the danger and the noise disturbances they make. Fireworks which explode in the air can still be used in most of the countries celebrating. For smaller cities and the rural areas of China, firecrackers have maintained their popularity, and are not generally seen as being dangerous. The clock at 12:00 pm on New Year’s Eve triggers the release of many of the firecrackers and fireworks. Traditionally, firecrackers will be set off first, after which, fireworks are released. A smaller firecracker is usually lit first followed by three larger firecrackers. The explosions of the firecrackers are “sounding out” the old year and “sounding in” the new year and the louder the firecrackers explode, the more luck the firecrackers are said to bring for the coming year. It is thought that the first person to launch their fireworks will gain good luck. Many children use mini hand-held rocket launchers, which are capable of launching 10 or 20 small fireworks.


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