Over 1.3 billion people in China and millions of Chinese around the world celebrate the first day of the Chinese New Year – February 10, 2013 – today. It’s the most important of Chinese holidays, kicking off a celebration that lasts for 15 days and culminates with the Lantern Festival. Each year is associated with one of 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac. For 2013, it’s the Year of the Snake. The celebration began yesterday in China (current time in Bejing here), but don’t let that stop you from celebrating. Gong Xi Fa Ca! That’s the traditional Chinese New Year greeting that means “wishing you prosperity” in Mandarin.
There are several variations on the mythology behind Chinese New Year celebrations. Most are based on a ugly bloodthirsty monster named Nian that would emerge on the last night of each year to destroy villages and eat people. A wise elder advised villagers to scare the monster away with loud noises. That night, they set fire to bamboo, lit fireworks, and banged their drums. The monster, afraid of the loud noises and lights, ran away to hide in its cave. In another version of the myth, an old man persuaded Nian to turn its wrath on other monsters, not the villagers. Before he was seen riding away on Nian, the old man, actually a god, advised the people to hang red paper decorations in their homes and set off firecrackers on the last night of the year to keep Nian away. On the first day of the new year, the villagers celebrated, greeting each other with the words “Guo Nian” which means “survive the Nian”, a tradition that has continued to this day to mean “celebrate the new year.”
In China, the familiar Gregorian calendar is used for day-to-day life. But Chinese calendar dates continue to be used to mark traditional holidays such as the new year and the fall moon festival. It’s also used astrologically to select favorable dates for weddings and other special events.
The Chinese calendar is a lunisolar calendar, in other words, a combination of solar and lunar calendars. It has a long history spanning several Chinese dynastic rules from as far back as the Shang Dynasty around fourteenth century B.C.. There are several different symbolic cycles within the calendar, used in Chinese astrology, that make it an intricate and complex measure of time.
A month in the Chinese calendar spans a single lunar cycle. The first day of the month begins during the new moon, when no sunlight falls on the lunar hemisphere that faces the Earth. A lunar cycle, on average, lasts 29.5 days, so a lunar month can last 29 or 30 days. Usually, there are 12 lunar months in a Chinese calendar year. In order to catch up with the solar calendar, which averages 365.25 days in a year, an extra month is added to the Chinese calendar every two or three years. As a result, Chinese New Year falls on different dates each year (in the Gregorian calendar) between January 21 and February 21.
Each year of the Chinese lunar calendar is represented by one of 12 animal symbols of the Chinese zodiac: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Boar. For 2013, it’s the Snake’s turn. The Snake is sometimes called a junior dragon because of its dragon-like appearance. According to Chinese astrology, people born on the year of the Snake are said to be keen and determined. They’re said to know how to maneuver themselves toward their own destinies and destinations. They are said to be sophisticated and calm and not outwardly emotional, but they might have a touch of paranoia at times. China’s late Chairman Mao Zedong was born in the year of the Snake.
Chinese New Year celebrations traditionally lasts 15 days, from the first day (during a new moon) to the 15th day (a full moon). Each day holds a special significance that varies according to local traditions. But first, before the arrival of the new year, homes are thoroughly cleaned to sweep away ill fortune, and to welcome good luck. On new year’s eve, there are family gatherings to celebrate and enjoy sumptuous traditional feasts, and to greet the new year with fireworks at midnight.
In the days that follow, festive dance parades are held featuring colorful dragons or lions, ceremonies are held to pay homage to deities and ancestors, children receive money in red envelopes, gifts are exchanged, extended family members visit each other, and there’s more traditional feasting.
The celebration culminates on the 15th day with the Lantern festival; on this night of the full moon, families mingle in the streets carrying lighted lanterns, often creating a beautiful light display.
Bottom line: The Chinese New Year for 2013 is celebrated on February 10. It’s the most important of Chinese holidays, celebrated by billions of people across the world. Festivities traditionally last for 15 days to culminate with the Lantern Festival. This calendar is based on a complex lunisolar calendar system that uses both lunar and solar cycles to mark time. As a result, Chinese New Year falls on different dates each year, between January 21 and February 21 of the conventional Gregorian calendar. Each Chinese lunar year is associated with one of twelve animals in the Chinese zodiac. For 2013, it’s the Year of the Snake.