Chinese New Year Origins & Traditions


The ancient Chinese calendar, on which the Chinese New Year is based, functioned as a religious, dynastic and social guide. Oracle bones inscribed with astronomical records indicate that it existed at least as early as 14th century B.C., when the Shang Dynasty was in power. The calendar’s structure wasn’t static: It was reset according to which emperor held power and varied in use according to region.

The Chinese calendar was a complex timepiece. Its parameters were set according to the lunar phases as well as the solar solstices and equinoxes. Yin and yang, the opposing but complementary principles that make up a harmonious world, also ruled the calendar, as did the Chinese zodiac, the cycle of twelve stations or “signs” along the apparent path of the sun through the cosmos. Each new year was marked by the characteristics of one of the 12 zodiacal animals: the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and pig.

The Chinese New Year period began in the middle of the 12th month and ended around the middle of the first month with the waxing of the full moon. Observance of the New Year period was traditionally divided into New Year’s Eve and the first days of the new year.

Traditionally for the Chinese, New Year was the most important festival on the calendar. The entire attention of the household was fixed on the celebration. During this time, business life came nearly to a stop. Home and family were the principal focuses. In preparation for the holiday, homes were thoroughly cleaned to rid them of “huiqi,” or inauspicious breaths, which might have collected during the old year. Cleaning was also meant to appease the gods who would be coming down from heaven to make inspections. Ritual sacrifices of food and paper icons were offered to gods and ancestors. People posted scrolls printed with lucky messages on household gates and set off firecrackers to frighten evil spirits. Elders gave out money to children. In fact, many of the rites carried out during this period were meant to bring good luck to the household and long life to the family–particularly to the parents.

Most important was the feasting. On New Year’s Eve, the extended family would join around the table for a meal that included as the last course a fish that was symbolic of abundance and therefore not meant to be eaten. In the first five days of the New Year, people ate long noodles to symbolize long life. On the 15th and final day of the New Year, round dumplings shaped like the full moon were shared as a sign of the family unit and of perfection.



Chinese New Year is a time for gift giving, a common tradition involves gifting red envelopes (lai see) that contain “lucky money.” Usually married couples give these gifts to children and single people, and when they go out, they carry envelopes to hand out to the children or members of families they visit. The money given in an envelope can be a token amount, such as a few dollars, or a more substantial gift, and it has symbolic as well as monetary value. For example, the amount should be an even number, and the numbers eight and 88 are considered especially lucky because the word for “eight” sounds like a word that means “prosperity”.

Remembering and showing respect for ancestors is an important part of Chinese New Year celebrations, too. Chinese families placed food and burned incense on home altars devoted to those who had passed on. They also said prayers to departed relatives, who they still considered part of the family. These ceremonial customs are less common now, but generally showing respect for ancestors and elders — by visiting grandparents, for example — is still a part of New Year tradition in many Chinese homes.

Food is also an essential part of any Chinese New Year celebration. On the next page, we’ll explore some of the delicious items that are associated with the holiday. Chinese emphasize feasting and mark New Year’s Eve with a large dinner, which typically includes items like dumplings, prawns, dried oysters and other types of seafood.

Many of the foods associated with New Year have symbolic meaning attached to them. For example, oranges, melons and kumquats are popular because their gold color suggests wealth. Dumplings are fashioned to resemble gold and silver ingots and served in soup as symbols of riches. Hard-boiled eggs, cellophane noodles, fish and chicken are all associated with prosperity. Long noodles represent longevity, and the Chinese eat them whole — it’s said that cutting them up in the bowl might lead to a short life. Since red is also so much associated with the New Year, it also features heavily in celebratory dishes. Red dates, red-dyed pumpkin seeds and pomegranates often appear on Chinese tables during this time of year.