Chinese New Year: Origination, History and Traditions

By: Caroline Smith ’24

     Chinese New Year, or as some people like to call the Lunar New Year or the Spring Festival, is the most important among the traditional Chinese festivals. The origin of the Chinese New Year Festival can be traced back to about 3,500 years ago.      

     Chinese New Year has existed for a long time and its customs have evolved so much over thousands of years. Like all traditional festivals in China, Chinese New Year is steeped with stories and myths. One of the most popular is about the mythical beast Nian (nyen), who is to believe to eat livestock, crops, and even people on the eve of the new year.

     One coincidental interesting fact is that Nian, the ‘yearly beast’, sounds the same as ‘year’ in Chinese. To prevent Nian from attacking people and causing destruction, people started to put food at their doors for Nian. The legend is that a wise old man figured out that Nian was scared of loud noises specifically firecrackers and the color red.

      Accordingly, people put red lanterns and red scrolls on their windows and doors to stop Nian from coming inside, and crackled bamboo (later replaced by firecrackers) to scare Nian away.  The monster Nian never showed up again.

     Chinese New Year has enjoyed a history of about 3,500 years. Its exact beginning is not recorded. Some people believe that Chinese New Year originated in the Shang Dynasty (1600–1046 BC), when people held sacrificial ceremonies in honor of gods and ancestors at the beginning or the end of each year.

     The term Nian (‘year’) first appeared in the Zhou Dynasty (1046–256 BC). It had become a custom to offer sacrifices to ancestors or gods, and to worship nature so their harvest could be blessed at the turn of the year.

     The date of the festival, the first day of the first month in the Chinese lunar calendar, was fixed in the Han Dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD). Certain celebration activities became popular, such as burning bamboo to make a loud cracking sound. During the Tang, Song, and Qing dynasties, celebrants had an economic as well as a cultural boom which accelerated the development of the Spring Festival. The customs during the festival became like those of modern times. Setting off firecrackers, visiting relatives and friends, and eating dumplings became important parts of the celebration.

     In 1912, the government decided to abolish the Chinese New Year and the lunar calendar but adopted the Gregorian calendar instead and made January 1 the official start of the new year. After 1949, the Chinese New Year has renamed the Spring Festival. It was listed as a nationwide public holiday. Nowadays, many traditional activities are disappearing, but new trends have been generated. CCTV (China Central Television) Spring Festival Gala, shopping online, WeChat red envelopes, firework shows, and overseas travel make the Chinese New Year even more interesting and colorful.

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