How to celebrate Lunar New Year in China — with food, shopping, and family

By Lu Zhao | January 23, 2020

All illustrations by Anna Vignet

Lunar New Year is China’s most important and biggest festival, lasting 16 days, from New Year’s Eve (除夕 chú xī) to the Lantern Festival (元宵节 yuán xiāo jié). The Chinese New Year holiday is also known as the Spring Festival (春节 chūn jié), and unites Chinese families around the world. Before the Wuhan coronavirus wrecked some travel plans, three billion trips were expected be taken by Chinese citizens over the weeklong holiday.

The exact date depends on the Chinese lunisolar calendar (农历 nóng lì), but it always falls between January 21 and February 20. This year, Chinese New Year’s Day falls on Saturday, January 25, while the public holiday is from January 24 to 30. It marks the start of spring on the traditional calendar, and represents the beginning of a new life and new year. Korea, Mongolia, and Vietnam also celebrate a lunar new year based on the same calendar. 

2020 is the Year of the Rat

According to the lunar calendar, one’s birth year determines one’s zodiac animal. There are 12 Chinese zodiac animals, and this year will be the Year of the Rat, sometimes called the Year of the Mouse, but either way, it’s shǔ nián 鼠年 in Chinese. 

Chinese people believe bad luck comes to those in their zodiac year. To overcome this, you’re supposed to wear red — red underwear, socks, wristbands, whatever. 

Traditionally, each of the 16 days was associated with a specific activity, but the rules have been muddled in modern times. The most common activity is decorating one’s house with red, having a reunion dinner with family, and visiting relatives and friends.

Preparing for the New Year

In the past, Chinese New Year, for many, was often the one time all year when people could have a big meal and loosen their wallets. Families might begin preparing weeks or even a month in advance, much like how families in the U.S. might put up Christmas lights in November.

Many stores are closed during the public holiday, or the items are marked up, so thrifty families complete their New Year’s shopping (买年货 mǎi nián huò) in advance, stocking up on cooking ingredients, snacks, gifts, decorations, and more. Before the new year, Chinese people will thoroughly clean their house and buy new clothes.

New Year’s Eve (大年三十 dà nián sānshí)

This is the end of a lunar year, commonly known as 除夕 chú xī, meaning, “the past year is over after tonight” (旧岁到此夕而去 jiù suì dào cǐ xī ér qù). Because the date often falls on December 30 on the lunar calendar, it’s also known as “the 30th of the year’s last month” (大年三十 dà nián sān shí).

The New Year’s Eve meal with family is a celebrated tradition. On this day, the entire family — uncles, aunts, cousins — gathers in the house of an elder, usually a grandparent.

Dumplings are a staple of Chinese New Year but are more popular in the north. In the south, people eat spring rolls (春卷 chūn juǎn), rice cakes (年糕 nián gāo), Chinese “cupcakes” (发糕 fā gāo), wontons (馄饨 hún tún), and more, which all symbolize richness and reunion. In some places, hotpot is the thing. Fish is generally a must-have because in Chinese, the word (鱼 yú) has the same pronunciation as the word for surplus (余 yú). More importantly, you are supposed to leave half of the fish uneaten, which embodies the phrase “you’ll have more than enough every year” (年年有余 nián nián yǒu yú).

After dinner, families will gather to watch the Spring Festival Gala (春晚 chūn wǎn) performances. The main one is on China Central Television (中央电视台 zhōngyāng diànshìtái), which has been an annual show since 1983, and often features big-name celebrities. It has come under criticism as of late for being boring (among other controversies). But some years, the TV extravaganza has been very popular; see, for example, this summary of the best five CCTV Spring Festival Gala sketches of all time.

Fireworks are a crucial part of Chinese New Year, but in many big cities, people are banned from setting off their own fireworks due to pollution and safety concerns. (People often defy the rules, of course.) Some local governments set off official fireworks displays instead.

New Year’s Day (大年初一 dà nián chū yī)

When the new year actually begins, people go to visit their friends and relatives and bear gifts. Traditionally, that meant live chickens, turtles, or cream cakes, but not so much anymore. 

On this day, one is not supposed to sweep or dump trash for fear of “sweeping all your luck away.” 

This is a time of tolerance and joy. When you see people on the streets, it’s not uncommon to hear greetings of “Happy New Year” (新年快乐 xīnnián kuàilè) or “I hope you get rich” (恭喜发财 gōngxǐ fācái).

The act of giving blessings during Chinese New Year is called 拜年 bài nián. This is the happiest time for many children because they get gifts and red envelopes stuffed with cash from older relatives. Although digital red packets through WeChat have become more popular these days, many families still like getting brand-new banknotes from the bank and giving them to kids in physical red envelopes.

Day 2 (大年初二 dà nián chū èr)

A married daughter is supposed to bring her husband and kids to visit her parents (回娘家 huí niángjiā) on this day. It’s also known as a day for welcoming sons-in-law (迎婿日 yíng xù rì).

For couples from different cities, it can be hard to choose which family to visit.

Day 5 (大年初五 dà nián chū wǔ)

Day 5 is known as the “Small Year” (小年 xiǎo nián) in some regions, with traditions similar to the ones on Chinese New Year’s Eve. Day 5 is generally referred to as 破五 pòwǔ, meaning that New Year taboos such as sweeping are permissible again. On this day, people often set off fireworks to drive away poverty and welcome the God of Fortune (财神 cáishén).

Day 6 (大年初六 dà nián chū liù)

The final day of the public holiday, with most people returning to school or work the next day. No traditions here, only sadness.

Lantern Festival (元宵节 yuán xiāo jié)

Although the public holiday has ended a week before, Chinese New Year doesn’t traditionally conclude until the 15th day — as the Lantern Festival. No matter where you are from, you must eat 汤圆 tāngyuán on this day. Tangyuan are balls made from glutinous rice flour with different sweet fillings, served with a sweet syrupy soup.