4 Things You Need To Know About The Chinese New Year

Photo: Kin Cheung/ AP Photo.
Get ready to ring in the Year of the Monkey!

The 2016 Chinese New Year, which starts on February 8, will be celebrated across the globe by more than a billion people, making it one of the world's biggest holidays.

For those not well-versed in the tradition, we've gathered the essential information. The Chinese New Year is based on a traditional lunar calendar, rather than the modern calendar now used in the majority of countries (including China), and represents a "way of ancestors keeping track of the flow of time," Shiqi Liao, MA, head of the Chinese language program at New York University, told Refinery29.

The lunar new year starts after the second full moon to occur after the winter solstice, hence the February start date. But celebrations can begin as early as a week before the Chinese New Year officially begins, Liao said.

Part of a larger celebration, known as the Spring Festival, the lunar new year kicks off a season of merrymaking that ends on the 15th day of the year's first lunar month, with another celebration, called the Lantern Festival. And while it's not actually spring, Liao says that's part of the celebration; holding the festival during the winter helps create anticipation for the change of season and a return of warm weather. "When you have a cold winter, the spring cannot be far off," said Liao.

What does the Year of the Monkey mean for you?

Another element of the fun is that each new year is associated with one of the 12 signs of the Chinese zodiac. People born in 2016, for example, make their debut during the Year of the Monkey (as did those born in 2004, 1992, 1980, or 1968, and so on) and are seen as innovative, clever, and enthusiastic, according toThe Telegraph. Yi Chen, program coordinator at the University of Arizona's Confucius Institute, told Refinery29 that people born during years of the monkey are typically seen as smart and quick-witted, but also irritable.

But don't take all this too seriously, Liao advises: the characteristics of the Chinese zodiac animals are based on tradition, not science, he said.
How To Celebrate Chinese New Year

The Chinese New Year is celebrated with the Spring Festival, which includes parades, fireworks, and dancing. Red lanterns and other decorations are popular because the color red represents happiness and life. Firecrackers set off to celebrate the Chinese New Year are often also red, and representations of gods at local temples are draped in red garments in honor of the holiday, Liao explained. Chen also explained that firecrackers are typically used at midnight on Chinese New Year — the festivities begin on the Chinese New Year's Eve — to ring in the year ahead. "The louder, the luckier," Chen told Refinery29 of the firecrackers.

"Red is one of the most vibrant colors, if not the most vibrant colors we have," he says. "So it's vitality, it's liveliness, it's life." Liao added that red isn't a color typically seen in winter, which is why it's also a nod to the spring and year ahead.

While the biggest Chinese New Year celebrations are in Asia, communities around the world hold Spring Festival events to ring in the lunar new year. Chinatowns in the U.S. and Europe host parades, with lanterns and the traditional dragon dance, in which people use poles to animate a dragon. Check out this Lonely Planet guide to find a Chinese New Year celebration near you.

What To Eat On Chinese New Year
Food is a big part of the celebration. According to Liao, Chinese New Year in northern China means lots of dumplings, while the offerings in southern China, including his hometown of Shanghai, tend to be more varied. One traditionally popular dish in Shanghai is nian gao, a sticky rice cake, that is usually translated simply as "year cake." The Chinese pronunciation is the same as the word for height or up, which makes it a fitting treat for a new year. But since nian gao is "not that tasty," he notes, some Chinese families have abandoned the traditional rice cake in favor of other delicacies — "anything you can afford to buy: chicken, duck, pork shoulder."

One common element of Chinese New Year's feasts is fish. Liao explains that the Chinese word for fish "shares the same pronunciation with the word for abundance, so you always have fish."
Another culinary tradition: the reunion dinner, which brings generations of families together to share a meal on the eve of the lunar new year. It's a "more modern concept" of the traditional feast, and typically features several courses of meat, vegetables, and dumplings, as well as the required fish plate. "Eating fish is believed to bring a surplus of money or good luck in the coming year," Chen told Refinery29.

Chinese New Year Traditions You'll Love

Family gatherings are one of the most important parts of Chinese New Year festivities, which is a time to honor both the living and the dead. "It's a time of warmth, a time to go home, eat good food and an opportunity for everyone to express all their best wishes for the new year," Li Hong, the head of cultural affairs at Washington D.C.'s Chinese Embassy, told The Washington Post.

Older family members give younger family members red envelopes filled with money. Like the color of the lanterns used in the Spring Festival parade, the red of the envelopes symbolizes good fortune in the coming year.

Another tradition is cleaning the house in the days leading up to the Chinese New Year, to prevent disease in the coming year. But the cleaning needs to be done before the lunar new year — Chen told Refinery29 that washing your hair and cleaning during the first three days of the Chinese New Year are thought to "wash away the good luck." And if they can, many Chinese people avoid taking medicine on the New Year; it's thought that you'll be sick for the rest of the year if you do, The Beijinger notes.

One fun tradition anyone can celebrate during the Chinese New Year is to wear colorful clothing. Black is often seen as the color of mourning, so people tend to wear more colorful clothing to show joy for the year ahead, The Telegraph explains. During the Spring Festival, red is a particularly popular choice.

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