Chinese New Year traces its origins back to agricultural times during the Shang Dynasty (17th to 11th century BC). According to myths and legends, the monster “Nian” (whose name translates to ‘year’) would come to devour livestock and children. To scare him away and ensure prosperity, the Chinese would decorate their homes in red and set off fireworks.
For the Chinese, how you spend the first day of the lunar year can set the tone for the rest of the year. If you’d really like to get into the spirit of things, here are a few traditions you can join in:
Clean the House
Start the lunar year on a literal clean slate, but be sure to finish this before Chinese New Year; sweeping and dusting on the day is believed to sweep away good luck.
You’ll see the whole country decorated in red, as the color is believed to ward away bad luck and bring in wealth and prosperity.
Give ‘ampao’ or red envelopes of money
You may recognize these red Chinese envelopes. Locally called ‘hongbao,’ the envelopes are filled with crisp money bills and typically given in the spirit of spreading wealth and good luck. While there’s no set amount, people tend to give in lucky amounts of integral, even numbers (500, 800, 1000).
Apart from certain traditions, there are also a number of taboos to be avoided until the Chinese New Year celebrations are over
Cleaning the house
While some cultures make sure to have a clean household for the new year, those celebrating Chinese New Year make sure not to do any sweeping on festival day. The belief is that it will sweep away any good luck to come.
If red should be worn and used to decorate with, then black is to be avoided at all costs. The color is associated with bad luck and death.
Sharp and broken objects
As Chinese New Year is a celebration that brings people together, you’ll want to avoid sharp and broken objects, as they could signal fighting and separation in the new year.
Of course, it’s not a festival without food! Each region adds their own flavor to the traditional Chinese New Year dishes, but there some standout staples wherever you go. Be sure to have your fill!
This is a staple at every Chinese New Year dinner, because fish symbolizes an increase in prosperity. If you’re spending Chinese New Year in Shanghai, eat only the middle part and save the head and tail for the next day. In southern china, the belief is that this symbolizes completeness and more blessings to come.
While dumplings are enjoyed year-round (and worldwide), they become special part of the Chinese New Year dinner. The dumplings are shaped like the Chinese tael, a symbol of wealth and treasure, and the Chinese will also often hide a clean coin inside. They believe whoever eats the coin will become wealthier.
Shanghainese New Year Cake (Nian Gao)
A Chinese New Year favorite made from sticky, glutinous rice powder and either friend or steamed. The name ‘Nian gao’ literally translates to ‘sticky cake,’ but the words are also pronounced the same way as the phrase ‘higher year.’ Eating the sweet and sticky dessert has come to symbolize growing blessings with every year.
Apart from being a warm, comforting dish amid all the Chinese New Year traditions and festivities, the hot pot is an essential dish of noodles, stew and spices. The noodles symbolize happiness and longevity, and its red color invites a good and fruitful new year.