The Lunar New Year or Spring Festival, Chūn Jié (春節), this year beginning on February 12th, has a history in China dating back almost 4,000 years and every year prompts the largest migration of people on our planet. Beginning on the new moon appearing between January 21st and February 20th, it has been celebrated for thousands of years as the traditional end of winter and beginning of the spring season, heralding the beginning of a new year of luck, love and fortune. Spring Festival celebrations in China last for 40 days and is marked on its eve by the year’s most important meal – the New Year reunion dinner, held in the house of the eldest family member and attended by any and all family members that can make it. During this time, an estimated 3 billion travelers make their way across China and other countries around the world for family reunions and New Year’s celebrations.
Celebration of the Lunar New Year often ties in closely to celebrations of the Chinese zodiac, a 12-year cycle of animal signs which serves a similar purpose to the Western astrological cycle. The legend of the Chinese zodiac goes back over 2,000 years to the Qin dynasty, when the legendary Jade Emperor summoned all animals to his palace for a great race across a raging river. The order they arrived determined their place in the zodiac. The rat, and its once great friend, the cat, contrived to beat the rest by jumping on the back of one of the strongest contenders (and this year’s zodiac sign), the ox. However just before they finished the crossing, the rat pushed the cat off the ox’s back, solidifying their eternal enmity, along with the cat’s hatred of water and its omission from the zodiac. The crafty rat proudly hopped into first place, followed by the ox in second. Following the ox were, in order, the tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig. The ox is considered a symbol of honesty, patience, and conservativeness – symbols we will all be grateful for in the coming year.
Before the start of the new year, houses are thoroughly cleaned to remove any bad luck lingering in the corners, and often new decorations are put in place to symbolize the start of new beginnings. The color red is of particular importance in this celebration as well, with small red paper envelopes containing small amounts of money, passed from elder to junior family members. In northern China, dumplings, or jiaozi (餃子), are made and consumed with special frequency during this time, as they are associated with wealth and prosperity due to their shape resembling that of the Chinese gold ingots, sycee, used as currency until the 20th century. The reunion dinner may also heavily feature (depending on region and household), fish (Yú, 鱼), spring rolls (Chūnjuǎn, 春卷), and glutinous rice cakes (Niángāo, 年糕), all of which symbolize the gaining of wealth, good fortune, and prosperity. Auspicious and delicious food aside, the importance of gathering together and taking time to enjoy family and friends are paramount in the celebration of the Lunar New Year. With the arrival of the new moon heralds a fresh start. It signals the chance to let go of the past and embrace a new year filled with luck, love, and hopefully, plenty of delicious food.