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Chinese New Year

Kieran Meeke / 26 January 2017 ( 23 January 2020 )

With Chinese New Year fast approaching, here is our guide to this colourful festival. Celebrated around the world by the Chinese community, it’s China’s most important traditional holiday.

A Chinese lantern
Chinese New Year is China's most celebrated festival, enjoyed by communities all across the globe.


Chinese New Year's Day is the first day of the Chinese lunar calendar, so varies each year between January 21 and February 20. Also called Spring Festival in China, the celebrations are a welcome holiday during the winter months.

Most people in China were once farmers, and the date of New Year falls at a time in winter when there is little work to do. It is also a time when the hard work of spring is just around the corner. A perfect time to party, in other words.

The festivities last for seven days and it’s still traditional to return home to the countryside and see relatives. That’s a legacy of a time when you might need to pitch in and help get everything ready for the new agricultural year.

Prayers would be said for a good harvest in the year ahead, and that tradition continues now in the business world. Wishing for success in the coming year is something we can all relate to.

In China, the official holiday last for seven days from Chinese New Year’s Eve. 

New Year’s Eve is a time for family reunions, with a special meal featuring fish. Chinese New Year's Day is all about visiting other close relatives (or at least, in these busier times, calling them) and wishing everyone you know well.

Each day has a ritual associated with it, although these are not always now celebrated in urban areas. For example, the second day of New Year is considered the birthday of all dogs and it is traditional to feed them treats.

Most of us now know the most common greeting: “Gong Xi Fa Cai” (Mandarin) or “Kunghei Fat Choy” (Cantonese). This translates as ”Happiness and prosperity!”

“Sshin-nyen Haoww!” (Mandarin) or “Sen-nin Haow” (Cantonese) is the closest to “Happy New Year!”. It means “New Year Goodness!”

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New Year’s Day Superstitions

In rural areas, it is a tradition to thoroughly clean the home in the week before New Year. You should also pay off any debt you owe and claim any money owed.

It’s a sensible way to make sure everything is ready to start work in spring, but also now a superstitious belief in the year continuing as it starts. This extends to eating pre-cooked food on New Year’s Day, so you do not do any housework.

For the same reason, it is thought to be bad luck to break anything on the first day of the New Year, visit a hospital or even take medicine. In fact, sick people might break a medicine bottle to drive away any illness in the year ahead.

Similarly, washing your hair or sweeping out the house might wash away good luck. Using needles or knives also risks damaging your luck.

To set a good precedent, you should also avoid eating porridge or other poor food. 

A married daughter should also not visit her parents, as she might then become a burden during the year. (The traditional time to visit them is the second day of New Year, when her husband should accompany her. It’s a day for sisters to get together and talk about old times.)

Wearing new clothes is important, so that you will hopefully be wearing new clothes all year, but the colours white or black are avoided as they are associated with mourning.

Red is always a lucky colour, long associated with fire, so red banners will decorate doors and windows. Presents of cash are handed over on New Year’s Eve in red envelopes, from parents to children and bosses to employees.

Letting off fireworks at midnight, the official start of New Year, is also a longstanding tradition to chase away evil spirits. 

In places such as Hong Kong, such practices have been banned for safety reasons, but organised fireworks displays are now a popular alternative.

10 unusual Chinese customs

Chinese Zodiac

There are 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Pig.

Each animal is familiar from domestic use or from Chinese legend and mythology. They are arranged in alternate yin and yang order.

For example, a Monkey has five toes on each foot and is considered yang because that is an odd number. Next on the Zodiac is the Rooster, which has an even number (four) of toes and hence is yin.

A rat, with four toes on its fore feet and five on its hind, uniquely combines yin and yang. That’s why it is the first animal on the Zodiac. Each year is named after an animal and they come around in order in a 12-year rotation, and each animal has its own characteristics which are imparted to those born in their year.

Calculating your Chinese Zodiac sign is not as straightforward as counting back through the 12-year cycles. Since the Chinese New Year does not align with the Gregorian New Year of January 1, it is best to use an online table to match the day and month of your birth to the Chinese equivalent.

Your Zodiac Year

When your Zodiac year comes around again, as it does every 12 years, it is considered a time of potential bad luck. The turning over of the cycle offends Tai Sui, the God of Age.

There are a number of things you can do to ward off the evil spirits. Wearing red is the most important, from a red coat to red shoes. Red underwear is particularly auspicious but someone close to you must buy it: a partner or family member.

Jade also brings luck and can be worn in the form of jewellery, e.g. earrings, necklaces or bangles.

Tai Sui is thought of as a star, orbiting earth every 12 years. That means it faces a different direction every year and you can also avoid bad luck by turning your face away.

Of course, you need to know the astrological table but you can then move your bed or conduct a business meeting so your back is to Tai Sui. 

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Lantern Festival

The end of the New Year – the 15th day of the first month – is marked by the Lantern Festival. It is marked by letting off fireworks and carrying lanterns to the local temple.

The lanterns are usually red for luck and often highly decorative. They symbolise the letting go of the past year to make a clean break for the new. New Year taboos no longer apply and any decorations are taken down.

Lanterns often carry a riddle and people vie to come up with the cleverest. Gathering a group of friends to try and solve the riddle is all part of the fun. Anyone who cracks it might be given a small gift.

There are many legends around the origins of the festival. One is that a god was offended by the killing of a crane that flew down from heaven and vowed to burn down the village where it happened.

The villagers lit lots of red lanterns and let off firecrackers. To the troops sent to burn the village, it seemed already ablaze and they returned home to tell the god he had had his revenge.

As a time to walk around in the streets, when farm work was at its lowest, the lantern festival became associated with matchmaking (and fertility). It no doubt helps that it is also full moon.

Often falling near mid-February, it has become the Chinese equivalent of St Valentine’s Day in several places, including Hong Kong and Malaysia.

Lion Dances are also an important feature of the festival. The lion is brave enough to confront and drive away evil spirits. The dance involved synchronised movements from two people and is highly skilled, and often amusing.

A traditional food eaten during the festival is a rice ball filled with a sweet red bean paste. It is usually served in a fermented rice soup.

The round ball of rice symbolises the unity of the family and is thought to bring happiness in the year ahead for everyone. Its filling is vegetarian as a nod to Buddhist beliefs.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.