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Chinese New Year: The Date, the Calendar and Its Meanings

written by: Andrea Campbell • edited by: Tricia Goss • updated: 2/14/2015

Whether celebrating the New Year in San Francisco’s Chinatown or Beijing, you will experience many traditions, from house cleaning and family dinners to surprise coins and paper dragons. It is a 15-day long holiday for the Chinese that is chock-full of complex rituals, meaning and activities.

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    Date Calendar and Meanings of Chinese New Year The Chinese family begins preparing for the new year by thoroughly cleaning their home, which brings good luck. They are very conscious of currying favor with their gods, so preparations are paramount. They look at it as sweeping away or dislodging any ill fortune that may have beset the family in the past.

    The kitchen will also be a hub of activity because once the holiday begins they frown on doing certain things –primarily work—so everything must be readied before New Year’s Eve.

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    New Year superstitions abound. Following are some of the more prevalent beliefs.

    Using sharp knives or scissors at the beginning of the New Year can cut off luck.

    Bad luck will come to those who cook or clean during the first five days of the New Year.

    Visiting ancestors and cleaning the resting place of the dead by going to graveyards and paying respects is a family consideration.

    People will take baths adorned with mint leaves on New Year’s Eve in addition to getting haircuts and buying new clothes (red clothes are quite lucky). This way evil spirits will not know who they are; it is a way of disguise with a new appearance.

    Debts are repaid and any money owed is settled before the New Year or it will create disagreement in the family.

    Children often catch up with homework before New Year’s Eve and their parents are finalizing their work responsibilities.

    In the past, families used to hang plum blossoms over doorways and a new picture of the Kitchen God goes up every New Year’s Eve, often with an altar adorned with incense and sticky sweet cakes called niango. The Kitchen God’s picture generally hangs in the kitchen a week prior and is burned on New Year’s Day so he will go to Heaven and report to the Jade Emperor, who can bestow good graces on the household. If the Kitchen God eats the sticky cakes, his mouth will get stuck shut and no report is good news.

    Sometimes red banners (red again for good luck) are hung.

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    Historical Underpinnings

    Much of what happens is based on the historical agricultural idea of rice crops coming in for the spring and people praying for a good harvest. They feel the spirit of dead ancestors who have watched over them so loved ones often made offerings to receive good blessings in return.

    Since this big seasonal change has always been centered on the family, they travel great distances if necessary to be together (often as a reunion). In one city in Southwest China, a table is set up for a feast that seats 1,000. They will stay up late, visiting and feasting.

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    Childish Delights

    Children are especially enchanted during New Year’s celebrations because they receive gifts and puppets in addition to getting a red envelope with money inside.

    Red banners sway in the breeze all over town and herald the long paper dragons, made with papier-mâché, silk and brilliant ribbons hanging from bamboo sticks, that wind through the streets, snaking along to the delight of all young and lighthearted.

    Following will be elaborate fireworks displays in order to scare away bad luck.

    On the last of the 15 days, there will be a lantern festival

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    Dumplings are an integral part of New Year’s meals and are made beforehand. They are generally round and stuffed with meat, fish and cabbage. Sometimes a coin is hidden inside and the finder is promised wealth throughout the coming year.

    Fish is a symbol of plenty and a staple at meals. It is often served with long noodles that cannot be cut; if severed, the offender will be cutting his life short.

    Special trays are circulated with a variety of treats and they often have themes or meanings. For example, if a woman is interested in having many children, she is presented a tray with lotus seeds.

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    Chinese Calendar

    Festival dates for the Chinese New Year fall between January and February because the calendar is based on a lunar system, which means it follows the cycles of the moon. Chinese New Year falls on the first New Moon of the year and the moon cannot be seen in the night sky until it ends 15 days later during the first full moon of the year.

    What kind of animal are you? Each new year is ruled by one of the 12 Chinese zodiac animals such as rat, dragon, dog and snake. Legend has it that one day Buddha asked all the animals to come and visit him. The animals that showed up became immortalized in the zodiac calendar. (People who follow the Jade Emperor say he also invited the animals to a contest, and the rat won!)

    You can find the year you were born, see which animal signifies your birth year and figure out if those traits fit you well. For example, if you were born in the year of the Rat, you are charming, ambitious and you like adventure.

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    Welcome New Year

    “Sun Nien Fai Lok” means Happy New Year! The Chinese believe in attitude, in other words, the tone they set on New Year’s Day will have a lasting effect. Consequently, they are careful not to argue or scold children. Crying would be a bad thing, lest they will cry all year long. Speaking of children, they show respect for their elders, such as bowing to older people, bringing them tea or attending temple with them, where they will all pray to their ancestors to foster good spirits.

    If you were to attend Chinese New Year’s Day you will hear drums and gongs being played everywhere. People would be performance dancing, and children will be following the Lion dance with a giant puppet creature. All are attending various celebrations and watching parades.

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    The Lantern Festival

    The end of the Chinese New Year celebration is marked by the Lantern Festival on the first full moon of the year. Lanterns made of thin paper, silk, glass, and plastic stretched over bamboo or wood frames are lit up all over town. Some have good luck messages painted on them using beautiful Chinese characters and some have small paper riddles dangling from their frames.

    Over one billion people will celebrate Chinese New Year around the world, wherever large groups of Chinese people live and are celebrated. People in the Americas can search out Chinatowns in certain cities such as San Francisco, New York and other large metropolitan areas.

    Chinese New Year in 2015 falls on February 19th. If you would like to celebrate the holiday in your classroom, check out some of the resources below:

    Chinese New Year Crafts & Activities

    Chinese New Year Traditions

    Explore the Chinese New Year: Lesson for Grades 3-5

    Four Dragon Crafts for Grade School Students


  • Dickmann, Nancy. Chinese New Year. Chicago: Heinemann Library, Capstone Global Library, LLC., 2011. Book.
  • Gleason, Carrie. Chinese New Year. New York: Crabtree Publishing Company, 2009. Book.
  • EDSITEment: Animals of the Chinese Zodiac