Happy Chinese New Year! Also known as the Spring Festival, this upcoming holiday is packed full of traditions and symbolism. Here’s everything you need to know about the shindig.
1. The Chinese New Year doesn’t always fall on the same date.
China adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1912, but this holiday is based on the ancient Chinese, or lunar, calendar. Chinese New Year falls on the second new moon after winter solstice (somewhere between January 21st and February 19th). This year, Chinese New Year is February 19.
2. The New Year is China’s most important holiday.
It’s also China’s longest: The holiday is observed for 15 days. Technically, only the first three days are a statutory holiday, but most Chinese citizens will have the time from New Year’s Eve to the sixth day off from work.
3. San Francisco holds the largest Chinese New Year celebration outside of China.
The California gold rush of 1849 brought many people to the West Coast, including Chinese immigrants who worked on the railroads. Eager to share their culture with other Californians, these immigrants adopted the American tradition of a parade to celebrate their New Year. Since then, the event has become extremely popular—over a million people are expected to attend the parade this year.
4. The Chinese have celebrated the New Year for thousands of years.
The first Chinese New Year was celebrated during ancient times. According to mythology, a monster called Nian would appear at the end of each winter to ravage China and kill its people. The townsfolk used bright lights, loud noises, and the color red to scare the predator away. That’s why you see so many red lanterns and firework displays during the holiday. The Chinese invented fireworks in the 12th century, making them the first to use the explosives in a New Year’s celebration.
5. One sixth of the world’s population celebrates Chinese New Year.
The holiday isn’t just for the citizens of China. Countries with large Chinese populations like Taiwan and Singapore celebrate as well.
6. All cleaning is done before the celebration.
People participating in the Chinese New Year festivities will rigorously clean their homes on the 20th day of the 12th lunar month in preparation. This tidying up is symbolic of starting over fresh in the New Year. Some believe that the cleaning will sweep away the evil spirits or bad luck associated with the previous year. During the first day of the New Year, cleaning the house or washing one’s hair is discouraged because it could wash away good luck.
7. The dragon dance is believed to ward off evil spirits.
Unlike their Western cousins, Chinese dragons are friendly creatures associated with good luck, power, wisdom, and rain clouds. The dragon dance is a ceremony performed to scare off evil spirits and bad luck. Long dragons are constructed from wood, fabric, paper, or plastic and are controlled by poles connected to their bottoms; the longer the creation, the luckier it is believed to be. Pole bearers manipulate the dragon to make it appear to dance to the beat of a drum. It’s harder than it looks! The performers must be perfectly synchronized or the whole movement will be thrown off.
8. There are 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac.
According to ancient folklore, the order of the zodiacs was determined by a race orchestrated by the Jade Emperor in which the animals had to cross a river to get to the finish line. The rat finished first because it rode on the naïve ox’s back (the ox came in second). A powerful swimmer, the tiger came in third. The rabbit jumped on rocks to avoid the water. The story goes on like this until we reach the pig, which finished in last place because it took a nap.
Some legends mention a thirteenth animal: the cat. According to one legend, the cat also rode on the ox’s back, but was pushed off by the rat and drowned. Another story suggests that the rat gave the cat the wrong date and the feline missed the race entirely. Both stories result in explaining why cats are always chasing rats.
9. During Chinese New Year, keep your black clothes in your closet.
Color symbolism is an important part of the festivities. Black represents death, so it’s wise to steer clear of that color. Instead, wear bright colors like red, which symbolizes good fortune.
10. Children sleep with money under their pillows.
Elders will award youngsters with red envelopes filled with money in an effort to bring more happiness and good fortune. The contents are less important than the envelope itself, as the act of giving symbolizes good luck. Some children will sleep on their envelopes for seven days before opening to make their loot even luckier, and parents will also slip envelopes under their children’s pillows while they sleep, not unlike the tooth fairy.
11. Everyone turns one year older.
Renri, the seventh day of celebration, is considered the day that all human beings were created. As a result, everyone turns one year older on this day—sort of like a national birthday.
12. Fu signs are sometimes placed upside down.
Red diamond-shaped signs depicting the fu character are commonly placed on or above doors during Chinese New year. The symbol signifies good luck, so by placing it upside down, the residents allow the luck to pour down into the household.
13. On the last day of the celebration, everyone releases lanterns into the sky.
Elaborate paper lanterns that come in many different shapes and sizes are released on Chap Goh Mei (or the Lantern Festival), the fifteenth day of the New Year. Some see this practice as symbolically letting go of the old self to become a new person. Many will write riddles on their lanterns for others to try to solve.
14. Chap Goh Mei is like Valentine’s Day.
The final day of Chinese New Year is also considered a day ripe for love. Many single women will write their phone numbers on mandarin oranges before tossing them into the river. Men waiting downstream will collect the fruits and eat them. The sweetest one means the couple will have the best luck together.
15. 2015 is the year of the goat.
If you were born in 1919, 1931, 1943, 1967, 1979, 1991, or 2003, this is your year! As a “goat,” your lucky colors are brown, red, and purple. Your supposed best months are August and November, and your lucky flowers are primroses and carnations. People with this zodiac are supposed to be kind, amicable, and stable.