You may know what the Chinese New Year celebration is, but do you know how the holiday got its start? This lesson discusses the origins of Chinese New Year and how it has evolved over time.

Celebrating the New Year

What important event happens on December 31? Depending on how old you are, you’ve probably stayed up until midnight on New Year’s Eve waiting to celebrate the start of the new year on January 1. While New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day are the same every year in the United States, that’s not the case for Chinese New Year.

Chinese Calendar

Instead of falling on the same day every year, the Chinese New Year changes every year based on several different factors: the lunar calendar and solar solstices.

  • The lunar calendar is based on the different phases of the moon. Based on the time of year, the moon might be waxing (moving towards a full moon) or waning (moving closer to crescent moon).
  • The solar solstices include the longest day of the year and the shortest day of the year.

Chinese New Year begins on the second new moon following the winter solstice (shortest day of the year). As a result, the celebrations do not happen at the exact same time each year, but will always fall between January 21 to February 20th.

Origins of the Chinese New Year

Chinese New Year celebrations date back as early as the 1300s in China (roughly 700 years ago). According to legend, a horrible monster named Nian arrived at the same time every year to terrorize the Chinese people. Nian did all sorts of awful things like eat children and ruin crops. To scare the monster off, the people used fireworks to make loud noises and they began to display the color red outside of their homes. Defeating Nian warranted annual celebration. Today, the color red is still considered to be a symbol of good luck in China.

Red Chinese New Year items to symbolize good luck
Red Chinese New Year items to symbolize good luck

Evolution of Chinese New Year

Chinese New Year got its first big makeover in 1912. While the Chinese operated on their lunar calendar, the Western world used the Gregorian calendar (the calendar we use today). In an effort to modernize the country, the Chinese government:

  • adopted the Gregorian calendar
  • made January 1 the official start of the new year
  • renamed Chinese New Year to the Spring Festival

During the late 1940s, China’s government and society went through some major changes. Communist leader Mao Zedong officially outlawed the Spring Festival. In Mao’s eyes, the Spring Festival represented the peasant traditions of old China. Mao’s policies made China an atheist country (a country without any official belief systems or gods), and he believed celebrating the Spring Festival went against this policy.

Chinese New Year and the Spring Festival were not officially celebrated again until the late 1980s and 1990s after communist policies began to ease. Today, people working in major cities in China enjoy a week-long vacation to celebrate the new year.

Chinese New Year Traditions

Like holidays in the United States, Chinese New Year has many unique traditions. Instead of celebrating the new year on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, Chinese New Year lasts for nearly a month. About two weeks before New Year’s Eve, families begin preparing for the festivities by cleaning their homes from top to bottom…kind of like spring cleaning! The goal of cleaning is to get rid of any negative energy before entering the new year.

Chinese New Year also involves many good luck traditions including various sacrifices and offerings to ancestors and spirits. Like in the myth about the monster Nian, fireworks and the color red are still big parts of Chinese New Year today. On New Year’s Eve, families gather and enjoy a feast with many different courses. Celebrations continue for 15 days into the new year. During this time, people enjoy a type of long noodle that’s meant to represent a long life.

Lesson Summary

Dating back to the 1300s, Chinese New Year is a yearly celebration to bring in the new year. It’s date is based off of several factors including the lunar calendar and solar solstices. The actual date varies but it starts on the second new moon following the winter solstice.

According to myth, the holiday began after the Chinese people were able to get rid of a horrible monster named Nian. In 1912, the Chinese government adopted the Gregorian calendar, made January 1 the official start of the new year, and renamed the celebration to the Spring Festival. Over the course of the month-long celebration, people clean their homes to prepare for the new year, make offerings to spirits, and eat special foods like long noodles (to represent long life).