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Western New Year vs. Chinese New Year

TANNER BRADEN | DECEMBER 31, 2021

Most people are aware that the Chinese celebrate their own New Year holiday later on in the year than Westerners do. But do you know how much different it really is? Read on to learn how the Chinese New Year - 新年 (xīn nián)  - compares to the Western New Year - 跨年 (kuà nián)! 


Dates & Calendars


The Western New Year is based on the Gregorian solar calendar - known in Chinese as 公历 (gōng lì)  or 阳历 (yáng lì),  whereas the Chinese New Year is based on the traditional Chinese lunisolar calendar - known in Chinese as 农历 (nóng lì)  or 阴历 (yīn lì).  The traditional Chinese calendar divides the year into 24 solar terms, the first beginning when the sun reaches a celestial longitude of 315º. This first solar term is called 立春 (lì chūn),  which means "The Beginning of Spring." Long ago, Chinese people used to celebrate the New Year on 立春 (lì chūn),  which is why the Chinese New Year is also known as 春节 (chūn jié)  - Spring Festival. But nowadays they define the beginning of the New Year as the second new moon after the winter solstice. This is why the Chinese New Year falls on different days of the Gregorian calendar each year. Here are a few examples:
  • January 25, 2020
  • February 12, 2021
  • February 1, 2022


Chinese Language Tip

During Chinese New Year, you can greet your Chinese speaking friends by saying any of the following greetings.

  • 过年好 (guò nián hǎo)  - Happy New Year
  • 春节好 (chūn jié hǎo)  - Happy Spring Festival
  • 新年快乐 (xīn nián kuài lè)  - Happy New Year


During the Western New Year, you can say either of these two greetings.

  • 新年快乐 (xīn nián kuài lè)  - Happy New Year
  • 元旦快乐 (yuán dàn kuài lè)  - Happy New Year


15 Days Long


According to traditional Chinese customs, people start to 忙年 (máng nián)  - prepare for the new year - on the 23rd day of 腊月 (là yuè)  - the twelfth month of the lunar year. This day is known as 小年 (xiǎo nián)  and in 2022, it will fall on January 25. Then on 年三十 (nián sān shí)  - the last day of the lunar year - businesses close and people get off work to celebrate and welcome the New Year. This day is also known as 除夕 (chú xī)  - New Year's Eve. The Chinese New Year technically begins on 初一 (chū yī)  - the first day of the lunar year - and doesn't come to a close until 元宵节 (yuán xiāo jié)  - the fifteenth day, also known as the Lantern Festival. That's fifteen whole days of celebration, so you could definitely say the New Year is a big deal in China! They even will typically get a whole week off of work, from 除夕 (chú xī)  - New Year's Eve - to 初六 (chū liù)  - the sixth day.


Most Important Holiday of the Year


As you might have guessed from just how much time they dedicate to the holiday, the New Year is certainly the biggest and most important holiday of the year. It also has a rich and extensive history, and holds significant meaning for individuals, families and businesses. Many millennia ago, ancient priests would perform their ceremonies and people would pray to their gods and ancestors for a prosperous, peaceful year and a large, successful harvest. In these modern times, Chinese people no longer carry on such beliefs and customs, but they still see the Chinese New Year as the true start of the year; a time to reunite with family and share their hopes and dreams for the coming year.


A Time to Reunite with Family


To celebrate their New Year, Westerners usually go out to parties with friends or other large public events. In contrast, the New Year is the biggest chance for Chinese families to reunite (similar to how families get together for Christmas). No matter how busy their lives may be, people will get off work or school on 除夕 (chú xī)  - New Year's Eve - and get together with their family and have a large dinner, spending the evening together and welcoming the New Year. Being absent for the New Year's Eve family reunion dinner is often one of the biggest regrets a Chinese person can have. The importance of these family reunions has caused what is now referred to as 春运 (chūn yùn)  - Spring Festival Travel Rush, the largest annual human migration in the world, with 3.7 billion trips made during a 30-40 day period around the Chinese New Year in 2015! That's the equivalent of the entire populations of Africa, Europe, Oceania, and the Americas all traveling at the same time!


Millenia-Old Traditions


In the West, celebrating the New Year is typically a fairly simple affair - go to a party with friends or stay in with family to have a nice meal and make a lot of noise (maybe setting off a few fireworks) at midnight. But in China, it really is a big deal, and they go all out! It's a big country, with the different regions each having their own unique customs; but here are a few of the more major traditions that have been continuously followed for thousands of years!


贴年红 (tiē nián hóng) 

Hang New Year Decorations

These include 春联 (chūn lián)  - Spring Festival couplets, 窗花 (chuāng huā)  - paper cutout window decorations, 福 (fú)  - a character meaning good fortune, and 年画 (nián huà)  - New Year pictures.


放鞭炮 (fàng biān pào) 

Set Off Firecrackers

In recent years, due to environmental concerns, this isn't done as often. But it is still a very old and beloved tradition. It is said that thousands of years ago there was an ancient beast named 年 (nián)  that would come to terrorize villagers each year, and they used firecrackers to scare it away and restore peace and safety. But really Chinese people have used firecrackers as a way to add excitement and express joy during important events like weddings, opening a store, and other festivals.


年夜饭 (nián yè fàn) 

New Year's Eve Dinner

*Also known as 团圆饭 (tuán yuán fàn)  - Reunion Dinner

As mentioned in the previous section, New Year's Eve Dinner is the most important and anticipated event of the year. Over the years, people have come to make this dinner bigger and bigger, more and more elaborate! Depending on what region of China you're in, you'll find a wide variety of delicious Chinese foods included in this meal; but no matter where you are you'll always find 饺子  (jiǎo zi) - dumplings! In Southern China you'll see that 汤圆 (tāng yuán)  - glutinous rice balls - and 年糕 (nián gāo)  - New Year cake - are also essential dishes.


拜年 (bài nián) 

Pay a New Year Call

In Northern China, on 初一 (chū yī)  - New Year's Day, people will often visit friends and family to give gifts and express New Year's wishes of happiness and prosperity. It's common to greet each other by saying, “过年好 (guò nián hǎo)  - Happy New Year!"

In Southern China, people typically don't 拜年 (bài nián)  - pay New Year calls - until 初二 (chū èr)  - the second day. Instead, on 初一 (chū yī)  - New Year's Day, people in Southern China often will take time to worship their ancestors. In ancient Chinese culture, the first five days of the New Year were to be spent worshiping their gods and ancestors, praying for blessings of prosperity, health and safety.


Taboos & Superstitions


As you now know, Chinese New Year is a very important time that sets the tone for the rest of the year. Over the millennia, the Chinese people have developed certain customs about things one should do to protect the luck & fortune for the New Year, as well as things one should avoid doing to prevent bad luck & misfortune for the year to come. While these customs also vary between regions of China, here are some of the more common ones.


Unlucky


Wearing black or white clothing.

  • White and black are typically used during funerals, so they are considered very unlucky colors to wear during Spring Festival.


Arguing or swearing.

  • Chinese New Year is a time for joy and laughter, and is seen as a time to set the tone for the rest of the year. So arguing or swearing is considered unlucky and should be avoided as best as possible. If something goes wrong, then people try their best to resolve it calmly and peacefully.


Using the words 死 (sǐ)  - death, 病 (bìng)  - illness, 穷 (qióng)  - poor, or other similar words.

  • During Chinese New Year, people hope to hear lots of positive and pleasant words. So even if these sad things do happen during Chinese New Year, people will avoid using the words themselves in hopes of maintaining a happy atmosphere and protecting their good fortune. Parents will even scold children if they hear them use these words during the holiday.


Sweeping or taking out the garbage before 初五 (chū wǔ)  - the fifth day.

  • Chinese people believe that any cleaning done during the first five days of the year, especially New Year's Day, will result in "cleaning away one's good fortune." They see the leftovers and remnants of the holiday's festivities are signs of good fortune and prosperity for the year to come.


Washing your hair or clothing on 初一 (chū yī)  - New Year's Day.

  • Following the same idea as avoiding sweeping or taking out the garbage, people typically wash their hair and clothing before New Year's Day so that they can "collect" all the good fortune throughout New Year's Day without washing it away.


Gifting pears to others.

  • The Chinese character for pear is 梨 (lí), which is a homophone with 离 (lí) which means "to leave" or "to separate." So people avoid gifting pears as they are seen as relating to loved ones leaving or going away.


Going out on 初四 (chū sì)  - the fourth day.

  • According to old Chinese traditions, 初四 (chū sì)  - the fourth day - is considered as 接神日 (jiē shén rì)  - the day to welcome the gods. It's the day that 灶王爷 (zào wáng yé)  - the Kitchen God - will "take attendance," and if you're not at home when he checks you'll be cursed with bad luck for the rest of the year!



Lucky


Wearing red clothing and accessories.

  • Red is the main color representing the New Year, and a symbol of all the good fortune and prosperity that people wish for.


Greeting each other with 过年好 (guò nián hǎo)  - Happy New Year, instead of other common greetings like 你好 (nǐ hǎo)  - hello.

  • While typical greetings are nice enough, Chinese people typically greet each other with 过年好 (guò nián hǎo)  as a way to wish that person happiness and prosperity in the year to come.


Cleaning up & taking out the garbage on 初五 (chū wǔ)  - the fifth day.

  • As mentioned above, the garbage accumulated from New Year's Day through the fourth day are seen as signs of prosperity to come. But once the fifth day arrives, they become unlucky and must be cleaned up and tossed out!


Saying 岁岁平安 (suì suì píng ān)  - peace throughout the years - if you accidentally break something.

  • Breaking things is seen as unlucky and a bad omen for the coming year, but you can "offset" that bad luck by immediately saying 岁岁平安 (suì suì píng ān)  - peace throughout the years - because 岁 (suì)  is a homophone with 碎 (suì)  - to break to pieces.


Eating fish & dumplings.

  • Since 鱼 (yú)  - fish - is a homophone with 余 (yú)  - surplus/excess, it's believed that eating fish will bring an abundance of fortune and prosperity, more than you can even consume! And dumplings look similar to the gold money boats used in ancient times, so Chinese people have the superstition that the more dumplings you eat during Spring Festival, the more money you'll make that year!




Chinese New Year is filled with millennia of history, culture, and tradition, as well as all the hopes and dreams of the Chinese people for the year to come. It's a much bigger holiday and plays a more significant role in the culture of China than its western counterpart.