The Chinese New Year, also called Spring Festival, is the most important and widely celebrated festival of all in China. It is celebrated from the 1st day of the 1st lunar month to the 15th day of the 1st lunar month. The final (15th) day is called Lantern Festival, and the night before the 1st day is called Chinese New Year's Eve (Chuxi in Chinese pinyin). This is a time for family reunions, visiting relatives and friends and exchanging greetings for the coming New Year. It is also a time to ring out the old and ring in the new. The Chinese New Year can also be called "Guonian" which means the passing of the old year to the new one. This festival emphasizes the importance of family ties. The dinner gathering of Chinese New Year's Eve is the most important family occasion of the year.
There are several versions for the origin of Chinese New Year. The most widely heard one is that there was a mythical beast called "Nian" which means "year" in Chinese. Nian always came on the first day of New Year to prey on livestock, crops, and even people. In order to protect themselves, people started putting food in front of their doors at the beginning of every New Year, as they believed that after Nian ate the food prepared for him, he wouldn't eat any of their crops and people. Coincidentally, some people once saw that Nian was scared away by the red clothes worn by a child so they concluded that Nian was afraid of the color red. Therefore, in preparation for the New Year, people began to buy new red clothes for themselves. Also, they hung red lanterns and red spring couplets on doors and windows. They also lit firecrackers to scare Nian away. From then on, Nian never came back again.
This tradition has been handed down through generations. People still buy many red items in preparation for the New Year: red clothes, red lanterns, red paper-cuttings, red spring couplets, red fireworks and firecrackers, and all manner of red objects. So now you know that people don't just feel the color red is exciting or festive, they have a reason to do that!
On Chinese New Year's Eve, members of the family, big or small, near or far away, gather for a "reunion dinner". The most common dishes for this dinner are chicken and fish. There are many symbolic foods prepared for the New Year. For example, the fish, "yu" in Chinese pinyin, signifies that there should always be surpluses. Commonly in northern China, "Jiaozi" (dumplings) are made, symbolizing the luck that is wrapped inside. In eastern China, "Nian gao" (Chinese New Year Pudding) is prepared, symbolizing a more prosperous year. People also buy melon seeds, candy, and other seeds.
A few days before the New Year, every corner of the house must be swept and cleaned. This is to wipe away the old and evil spirits. Then, on the eve of the New Year, decorations like red paper-cuttings, lanterns, or spring couplets are put up. Written in black ink on large vertical scrolls of red paper, spring couplets are put up on the sides of doors, windows, or other gate-ways. The couplets are mainly short poems written in classical Chinese, which express good wishes for the family in the coming New Year.
Red envelopes ("hongbao" in Chinese pinyin) are sold all around the markets and streets. They are used to put money in and the money is called "ya sui qian", symbolizing the warding off, or suppression of evil. Usually, adults or older people give red envelopes with any amount of money (it can be 5 yuan or 100 yuan or more) to the juniors. On the cover of the red envelopes, there are usually icons of what the year belongs to or some common greetings like "xin nian kuai le" (Happy New Year) "ji xiang ru yi" (wish everything goes well for you). Some people don't use any red envelopes; instead, they give money to the younger directly.
Dragon dances and lion dances are very popular and common during the Chinese New Year. From the 1st day of New Year to the 15th day, streets and homes are filled with dragon and lion dances. They are formed by a group of people, some of whom manage the "dragon" and the "lion", while some beat the drums. It is believed that the loud noise created by the drums, along with the faces of the dragon and lion scare away evil spirits.
When the New Year celebration ends on the 15th day of the New Year, there comes the Lantern Festival. On the evening of that day, in some places, people make lanterns and put them into a main river and just let them flow with the currents. In other places, there are lantern parades. People bring lanterns with them and walk on the streets. Young men may highlight the parade with a dragon dance.