Chinese New Year and Lantern Festival
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Known to Westerners as Chinese New Year and to the Chinese as Spring Festival, the major national holiday in China is a time when families get together to usher in the new lunar year.
It usually falls in late January or early February, and workers get a week off to celebrate. Spring Festival sees one of the largest human migrations in the world, as millions of workers go back to their home cities. The train and road networks are jammed, and getting a ticket is nigh-on impossible.
On New Year’s Eve, the skies light up with fireworks and the rattle of firecrackers goes on until the early hours, designed to frighten off spirits, and the mythical Nian monster. The wealth god is welcomed three nights later, and the chaos starts again. Then, on the last day of the festivities, people gather to watch lanterns contrasted against the night sky.
Children traditionally receive red hongbao envelopes stuffed with money and are treated to a new outfit. Families visit relatives and feast on lucky food like oranges, fish, tofu, and dumplings, greeting each other with gong xi fa cai (pronounced gong-shee-fah-tseye), meaning “happiness and prosperity.”
Shop fronts and public spaces are adorned with auspicious characters and depictions of whichever zodiac animal has risen to prominence that year.
Beijing and Shanghai tend to empty out over Spring Festival, with local businesses shutting up shop for the duration of the week. Larger enterprises remain open, and it can be a pleasantly chaos-free time to visit if you don’t mind being woken by fireworks or navigating a busy transport system at each end of the holiday.
The Lantern Festival falls on the last day of the week-long Chinese New Year holidays, and is one of the highlights of the festivities. People gather to watch lanterns being lit in parks and temples across the cities and eat rice balls stuffed with black sesame. The festival dates to the time of the Han emperor Ming Di, who decreed that lanterns be lit to honor Buddha.
Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) Dates
The dates for Spring Festival change every year. The festival’s starting date is always the first day of the first month of the Chinese calendar, which is not concurrent with the Gregorian calendar.
- January 23, 2012
- February 10, 2013
- January 31, 2014
- February 19, 2015
© Susie Gordon from Moon Beijing & Shanghai, 2nd Edition