When you are able to hear festive music playing in shopping malls and in stores, see Chinese shops selling red-coloured ornaments and decorations with well-wishes in Chinese characters, shops lined up with an assortment of cookies and delights in containers with red covers, one thing is for sure – Chinese New Year is around the corner!
Chinese New Year (also known as the Spring Festival) is a festival celebrated by about 1/5 of the world’s population! Yes, that is how many Chinese people there are here on planet Earth! As the festival is fast approaching, allow me to share a few interesting facts about the Spring Festival that you might know about!
Why is the festival known as the Spring Festival?
Have you ever wondered why the Chinese calls their New Year holidays the Spring Festival even though the holidays are actually during winter? This is because interestingly, the “Start of Spring” (usually between 4-18 February) is the first of the 24 terms used by the ancient farmers in China to monitor the farming activities and agricultural affairs throughout the year. Hence, although the stretch of New Year holidays occur during the wintry weather, the “Start of Spring” signifies the end of the coldest winter period whereby the Chinese farmers will look forward to the beginning of spring.
The date for Chinese New Year varies yearly
You might notice that every year, the Spring Festival starts on different dates than the years before but you might not know why. Well, unlike the Western New Year that is always celebrated on 1st January every year, the start of Chinese New Year differs yearly – depending on the phases of the moon, or based on a lunisolar calendar rather than the Gregorian calendar. Thus, while the start of the Chinese New Year differs every year, it will always fall between 16th January and February 20th, according to the Chinese lunar calendar.
The significance of the colour red
During Chinese New Year, you will notice that it is customary for most Chinese to wear red clothes, especially when they are visiting their elders or relatives. The colour red holds a significant symbol in Chinese New Year celebrations. Besides wearing red clothes, they also decorate their homes with poems and well-wishes on red paper and give children and unmarried relatives red packets filled with money (maybe one big reason why many Chinese prefer to stay unmarried!) For the Chinese, red symbolizes happiness, good luck, and fortune. Since everyone wants a great start to the New Year, so the Chinese will wear red throughout the Chinese New Year holidays and give out red packets to wish one another a New Year filled with prosperity and good luck.
Gong Xi Fa Chai, Hong Bao Na Lai! (Translated as wishing you a prosperous new year, red envelopes please!)
I remember that when I was a child, Chinese New Year was one of my favourite festivals, as it was one of the only ways to gain some quick and fast “income” with the angpaus (red packets) given by married relatives and adults! No, it is not because they are so rich that they do not know what to do with the money, but it is a form of blessing given from the elderly to children or unmarried juniors. However, do you know that there is an interesting story behind how the “hong bao” (red packets pronounced in Mandarin) came about?
A red packet is also known as yasui qian (meaning as money to suppress Sui). According to ancient Chinese legend, there was a demon named Sui that would come out to frighten children while they were asleep on New Year’s Eve. It was said that any child that comes into contact with Sui will be terrified, catch a terrible fever and become mentally unstable. Thus, parents used to light up candles and stay up all night in order to keep their children safe from Sui.
According to the legend, a Chinese official gave their son eight coins to play with, in order to keep him awake so that he will not be haunted by Sui – as Sui only attacks children who are asleep. The child wrapped the coins in red paper and played with it – opening and rewrapping the packet repeatedly until fell asleep. The parents then placed the red packet under the child’s pillow. That night, when Sui tried to touch the child’s head, the eight coins emitted a bright light and scared the demon away.
From that day onwards, the Chinese began the tradition of giving away red envelopes as a way to keep children safe and bring good luck. Though most Chinese nowadays no longer believe in the existence of Sui, the tradition of giving out red packets is maintained during the Chinese New Year. Hey, no complaints though – who wouldn’t want to money for free!
What’s with the animals and why is the cat not included?
Every year, the Chinese New Year is associated to an animal, in specific order – from the rat to the ox, followed by the tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig. This is also known as the Chinese zodiac. In fact, the Chinese believe that everyone is born under one of these animal signs, depending on the year that you were born in. But you might be thinking: Why were there twelve animals in the zodiac calendar and how did the order come from?
There are many myths of how the Chinese zodiac came about, but the most well-known story was that the Jade Emperor (known as the Emperor in Heaven in Chinese folklore) ordered that the first 12 animals who arrived to the palace on a particular day will be given a place in the Chinese calendar.
At that time, the rat and the cat were good friends and neighbors. When they heard of the news, the cat mentioned that they should arrive early to sign up but he always wakes up late. The rat then promised that he would wake the cat up the next morning. However, as morning arrived, the rat was so excited that forgot his promise and proceeded to the gathering without waking the cat. While he was on his way, he met with other animals such as the tiger, ox, horse that ran much faster.
In order to not fall behind, he came up with an idea. He persuaded the straightforward ox to carry him and in exchange, he sang for the ox. At last, he and the ox arrived first. Initially, the ox was happy thinking that he had gotten there first, but the rat had slid in front, becoming the first lucky animal of the Chinese zodiac. The other animals who arrived after the ox were given a place in the calendar but not the cat who woke up late and was the 13th animal to arrive.
These are some interesting facts about the Spring Festival or Chinese New Year. Now that Chinese New Year is less than a month away, I sincerely wish all Chinese a Happy Chinese New Year and may the upcoming year bring an abundance of health, happiness, peace and prosperity to every one of you.
Hope this was an interesting article! Do you know of any other stories about the Spring Festival that I might have missed?
Jonathan works for an e-commerce website and is all the rave about things about tabletop games, K-pop and movies. I am a keen writer on lifestyle and business-related topics too.