Chinese New Year: Four Thousand Years and Counting

By Kathy Gibler

Feb 16
Chinese New Year 2018

新年好 Xīnnián hǎo – Happy New Year!

People have been celebrating Chinese New Year, also known as the Spring Festival (节), for over four millennia and its reach is growing.   First celebrated in China, people around the world now observe the holiday.  Almost everyone finds a good party irresistible.  Visit Vancouver’s Chinatown on Sunday, February 18 to mingle with the crowds, see a parade and visit the Temple Fair at the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden.

Traditionally, at Chinese New Year, people were happily distracted from their daily lives for almost a month.  Family preparations took more than a week, with activities prescribed for every day, including cleaning, shopping for food and flowers full of symbolism and new clothing for the whole family.  All debts had to be paid before the New Year.  One day was reserved for sending off the kitchen god to report to the Jade Emperor on the family’s conduct that year.  The god’s picture hung in the kitchen where, from this central location, he could watch what was going on.  To ensure a good report, a sticky cake, Nian Gao (年糕 trans.‘every year is better’), was smeared on the picture’s mouth before he was sent off.   A good report was essential to secure abundant blessings for the coming year; the theory being that it’s hard to report bad things with a mouth full of sweets.

Chinese New Year was, and continues to be, one of the two main Chinese holidays that draw everyone home.  New Year’s Eve was for family, with eating, drinking and games.  Every dish of the reunion meal had symbolism.  Traditionally, in Suzhou China, people ate meatballs to represent the family reunion, egg dumplings that looked like ingots of gold and green vegetables with long stalks to represent longevity.

Children received red envelopes full of sweets or money by the adults.  The object of the evening was to stay awake until midnight to usher out the old year and welcome in the new one.  Firecrackers and fireworks have been set off for thousands of years to keep evil influences away and for the sheer fun of making noise.

Red and gold have always been the lucky colours of Chinese New Year.  Red lanterns, lucky sayings on red paper, red flowers, red envelopes and red clothing for children were popular.  Gold represented prosperity.

The first days of the New Year were for paying visits, exchanging new year greetings and enjoying general festivities.  It all ended on the 15th day of the new year with a Lantern Festival.

Temple Fairs were held during Chinese New Year and brought festival crowds together to see dragon and lion dances and acrobats, eat special food and shop at holiday markets.  Held at temples because they had large assembly spaces, the fairs provided a place to enjoy an outing in a renao (热闹 trans.‘hot and noisy’) atmosphere.

The festival has changed somewhat during its history; unhappily, we no longer get several weeks off work.  The kitchen god is less in evidence and more families eat at restaurants now, but families do gather. Red and gold, special flowers and red envelopes are still much loved.  Lions still dance and lanterns are hung.

If you want to immerse yourself in this happiest of all Chinese holidays, the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden will hold a Temple Fair in honour of the new Earth Dog Year.  You’ll see paper cutting demonstrations, a Chinese art book display, lion dancing and a Gongfu Cha tea demonstration.  Get a traditional couplet written just for you by the Richmond Calligraphy Club members, listen to the Chinese New Year story about the Nian (年) monster and traditional music performed by the Folk Music Group of the Senior Chinese Society of Vancouver, put a wish on the wishing tree and receive a red envelope from a community elder.


About the Author

Director of the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden in Vancouver from 2006 to 2016, Kathy Gibler Kathy believes the Chinese Garden is a vital cultural connector between Asian and other cultures and has spearheaded a vibrant program of horticultural exhibitions, concerts, education, festivals, interactive theatre and recently developed the first Master Gardener Course about Classical Chinese Gardens.