The Lunar New Year, also known as the Spring Festival, begins on the first day of the first month in the Chinese calendar and ends on the 15th, the Lantern Festival day.
The tradition was born from the legend that a mythical beast called the Nien would appear on the first day of the New Year and devour livestock and even villagers. No one could defeat the beast, until one day it saw a little girl in a red dress and fled in fear.
From that day on, villagers began hanging red lanterns and red spring scrolls from their windows and doors. They also lit firecrackers to keep the beast at bay.
Nowadays, New Year celebrations are marked by visits to relatives and friends, and the color red is used liberally on decorations and clothes. Days before the celebration, families clean up their homes to usher in good fortune. Brooms and dust are kept away during the festival so that the fortune is not swept away.
A dinner is held on New Year’s Eve and serves as a family reunion. The food is carefully selected to usher in wealth, happiness and good fortune. The names of the food picked are homophones for words that also mean good things. For instance, families prepare Buddha’s Delight, an elaborate vegetarian dish homophonous with “prosperity”; fish with “plenty”; oranges with “luck” and “fortune”, and nian gao – rice pudding –a homophone for “a more prosperous year”.
On the first day of the Chinese New Year families visit the most senior members of their extended family (usually their parents, grandparents or great-grandparents). The second day is for married women to visit their parents. And the fifteenth day of the celebration is the Day of Rice Dumplings (a sweet glutinous rice ball brewed in soup).
Traditionally, red gift packets – almost always containing money – are handed out by married couples or the elderly to unmarried younger relatives.
The amount of money should be an even number – odd numbers are handed out during funerals. The number eight is considered lucky since it is homophonous with “wealth”, while the Chinese for six sounds similar to “having a smooth year”.
Even floral decorations and performances are meaningful. Plum blossom symbolizes luck, while kumquat and narcissus both symbolize prosperity. Chrysanthemum and bamboo symbolize longevity, sunflower means a good year, and eggplant symbolizes healing from sickness.
The loud beating of the drums and the deafening sounds of the cymbals in the dragon and lion dances are believed to cast away evil spirits.