Chinese New Year – aka The Spring Festival

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Below is the traditional day by day schedule. However, it’s worth noting that Chinese people start their preparations for the Spring Festival more than 20 days early. The 12th lunar month in Chinese is called La Yue (腊月 là yuè), so the eighth day of this lunar month is La Yue Chu Ba (腊月初八 là yùe chū bā), or Laba (腊八 là bā). The day is also known as the Laba Rice Porridge Festival.


The three major customs on Laba are ancestor worship, eating Laba rice porridge (腊八粥 là bā zhōu) and making Laba garlic.

Ancestor worship (祭祖 jì zǔ): At the end of the year, working people get more free time to prepare for the sacrifice to the ancestors. The reason the 12th lunar month is called La Yue has a lot to do with the custom of sacrifice.
First, the worship of ancestors, called “腊” in Chinese, and the sacrifice for the gods, called “蜡 (là)”, both frequently took place in the 12th month, which led to the traditional name of the month: La Yue (腊月). Second, winter is the slack season for farmers so they have time to find things to burn in the sacrifice. The radical of “腊” represents the sacrifice of meat to one’s ancestors (“月” symbolizes meat).

Laba rice porridge: There are several legends about the origin of porridge eating on Laba: Some claim it is of Buddhist origin; some say the porridge, made of red beans, can exorcize evil from children. Others say the porridge is in memory of a poor couple.
The custom of porridge eating has been well known throughout history, from the royal court to common people.
The most “authentic” porridge was made in northern China, especially Beiping (北平).
The main ingredients of the Laba porridge are rice and sticky rice; people also add sugar, red dates, lotus seeds, walnuts, chestnuts, almonds, longans, hazelnuts, raisins, red beans, peanuts, water caltrops, roseleaf and other various materials to make the porridge special.

Almost every part of China has its own local recipe for the Laba porridge. Eating hot porridge is great in a cold winter, and the grain and nuts are considered healthy winter fare.

Laba garlic (腊八蒜 là bā suàn): It is an old Beijing custom to soak purple-peel garlic with vinegar and a little sugar.
First, pare the old skin of the garlic, then put the vinegar and garlic into a jar and seal it for keeping until the eve of the Spring Festival. When the whole family gets together for the dumpling feast that evening, they take out the Laba garlic which will be crisp, with a vinegary flavor and a green color. Vinegar with the aroma of garlic is the best seasoning for dumplings.

Little New Year

This falls about a week before the lunar New Year, is also known as the Festival of the Kitchen God, the deity who oversees the moral character of each household. On this day, a paper image of the Kitchen God is burnt on Little New Year, dispatching the god’s spirit to Heaven to report on the family’s conduct over the past year. The Kitchen God is then welcomed back by pasting a new paper image of him beside the stove.

The Kitchen God

Studies of popular Chinese religions indicate that the Kitchen God did not appear until after the invention of the brick cooking stove. The cooking stove was a fairly late development in the history of human civilization. Ancient writings indicate that the Fire God, the earliest form of the Kitchen God, was worshipped long before the stove was invented. Zhu Rong, China’s ancient Fire God was a popular folk deity and had many temples built in his honor. Stone lined firepits, an early form of the brick stove, are still commonly used among China’s ethnic minorities. People in these regions make offerings to the Firepit God. The Firepit God appeared between the Kitchen God and the Fire God in the history of Chinese folk deities. The Kitchen God appeared soon after the invention of the brick stove. The Kitchen God was originally believed to reside in the stove, and only later took on human form. Legend has it that during the Later Han Dynasty, a poor farmer named Yin Zifang was making breakfast one day shortly before the Lunar New Year, when the Kitchen God appeared to him. Although all Yin Zifang had was one yellow sheep, he sacrificed it to the Kitchen God. Yin Zifang soon became rich. To show his gratitude, Yin Zifang started sacrificing a yellow goat to the Kitchen God every winter on the day of the divine visitation, rather than during the summer as had been customary. This is the origin of the Kitchen God Festival, or Little New Year.

There are numerous customs associated with honoring the Kitchen God and determining the date of the Kitchen God Festival, or Little New Year. The date of this holiday was sometimes assigned according to location, with people in northern China celebrating it on the twenty-third day of the twelfth lunar month, and people in southern China celebrating it on the twenty-fourth. The date of Little New Year was also traditionally determined according to profession. Traditionally, feudal officials made their offerings to the Kitchen God on the twenty-third, the common people on the twenty-fourth, and coastal fishing people on the twenty-fifth. The person officiating at the sacrificial rites was generally the male head of the household.

The evening before Little New Year, the image of the Kitchen God that has been overseeing the household for the past year is taken down from its position by the stove. While the image is dried in preparation for burning, offerings and firewood are prepared. The firewood may include bundles of pine, cypress, holly, and pomegranate twigs. A new image of the Kitchen God is purchased, and figures of horses and dogs are plaited out of sorghum stalks. The offerings include pig’s head, fish, sweet bean paste, melons, fruit, boiled dumplings, barley sugar, and guandong candy, a sticky treat made out of glutinous millet and sprouted wheat. Most of the offerings are sweets of various sorts. It is thought that this will seal the Kitchen God’s mouth and encourage him to only say good things about the family when he ascends to Heaven to make his report. The Kitchen God will be invited to sit in a sedan chair for his trip to Heaven. Consequently, the day before Little New Year, streets and alleyways everywhere are full of vendors selling papermache sedan chairs and paper gold and silver ingots for the Kitchen God’s journey, and singing songs in his honor.

When a family makes offerings to the Kitchen God, it is in the hopes that he will ask Heaven to protect the family. An old saying goes that, “In Heaven good deeds are reported, on Earth safety is ensured.” The new image of the Kitchen God is not pasted up until Lunar New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day, in a ceremony known as “welcoming back the Kitchen God.” According to a saying from southern China, “On the twenty-fourth day he ascends to Heaven; on New Year’s Day he returns to Earth.”

See also Wikipedia article on the Kitchen God

House Cleaning

Between Laba Festival and the Little New Year, families throughout China will undertake a thorough house cleaning, sweeping out the old in preparation for the coming New Year.
Why do people clean their houses during the last month of the year?
According to Chinese traditions, ghosts and deities must choose either to return to Heaven or to stay on Earth during the last month of the year. It is believed that to ensure the ghosts and deities’ timely departure, people must thoroughly clean both their bodies and their dwellings, down to every last drawer and cupboard. Furthermore, as New Year’s Eve approaches, all family affairs must be put in order to ensure a fresh start in the new year. Spring Festival falls during the off season for farming, making it a convenient time for a thorough house cleaning.

New Year’s cleaning includes organizing the yard or garden, as well as scrubbing the doors, windows, and interior of the house. Old couplets and papercuts from the previous Spring Festival are taken down, and new window decorations, New Year’s posters, and auspicious decorations are pasted up.

Lunar New Year’s Eve

The last day of the old year, is one of China’s most important traditional holidays, although not counted as part of the Spring Festival itself.
Homes by now are cleaned inside and out, doors and windows are decorated with brand new Spring Festival couplets, New Year’s pictures, hangings, and images of the Door God, and people dress up in new holiday clothes decorated with lucky patterns and auspicious colors.

Reunion Dinner

To the Chinese, New Year’s Eve dinner is more than just enjoying a grand feast. On this day, all Chinese all over the world, no matter how far away from home they are or how busy at work, will be home for dinner.
The elaborate dinner is laden with auspicious food. The names of the dishes express the wish for good luck in the coming year. Most dishes are prepared with uncut or whole ingredients to ensure integrity and perfection. The use of knives is considered unlucky as this could sever the family’s good fortune.
Nowadays, a growing number of Chinese people choose to have reunion dinners at restaurants or invite cooks home to make dinners for them.

Spring Festival Couplets

On the Chinese New Year, while pairs of the Door God are pasted in the center of the door, spring couplets are pasted on each side of the door and propitious words across the lintel at the top, expressing wishes for happiness.
It is said that spring couplets originated from “peach wood charms”, or door gods painted on wood charms in earlier times. During the Five Dynasties (907-960), the Emperor Meng Chang inscribed an inspired couplet on a peach slat, beginning a custom which gradually evolved into today’s popular custom of pasting-up spring couplets.
In addition to pasting couplets on both sides and above the main door, it is also common to hang calligraphic writing of the Chinese characters for “spring”, “wealth” and blessing. Some people will even invert the drawings of “Fu” since the Chinese for “inverted” is a homonym in Chinese for “arrive”, thus signifying that spring, wealth or blessing has arrived.

Shou Sui 

Shou Sui occurs when members of the family gather around throughout the night after the reunion dinner and reminisce about the year that has passed while welcoming the year that has arrived. Some believe that children who Shou Sui will increase the longevity of the parents.
一夜连双岁,五更分二年 means that the night of New Year’s Eve (which is also the morning of the first day of the New Year) is a night that links two years. 五更 (Wu Geng – the double hour from 03:00 to 05:00) is the time that separates the two years.


No Spring Festival would be complete without the sound of firecrackers. Firecrackers and fireworks are traditionally set off on New Year’s Eve and on Dragon Boat Festival, the fifth day of the New Year. In addition, it is also customary in many regions to set off fireworks early in the morning of New Year’s Day, when the front door is first opened. This tradition, known as “front door firecrackers,” is meant to welcome the first day of the new year.

Firecrackers have a very long history in China. The first firecrackers consisted of segments of bamboo that were set on fire, causing them to explode with a loud noise. They were used to scare away ghosts and banish evil. Firecrackers have traditionally been associated with the supernatural. In addition to frightening ghosts, they were also used to see out the old year and welcome in the new.

Eventually, they came to symbolize a prayer for peace. There are many different kinds of firecrackers and fireworks, including noisemakers, sparklers, and colorful pyrotechnics. Today, fireworks are used primarily to heighten the festive holiday spirit. However, because of the injuries and environmental pollution caused by fireworks, a number of cities have banned or limited their use, replacing them with other holiday activities.

Day 1

People begin their day by offering prayers and welcome the gods of heaven and earth. Most avoid meat to ensure healthy living.

In northern China, the first meal of the New Year is boiled jiaozi (stuffed dumplings). In the south, it is niangao (New Year’s cake). In the Chinese language, niangao is a homonym of the phrase “higher every year,” signifying the wish for steadily increasing prosperity.
Red Envelopes Giving Red envelopes or Hongbao during the Spring Festival is a time-honored tradition in China. Red envelopes always contain money, varying from a couple of dollars to several hundred. The amount of money in the red envelopes should be of even numbers, as odd numbers are associated with cash given during funerals (帛金 : Bai Jin). The number 8 is considered lucky (for its homophone for “wealth”), and the money in the envelopes is often a multiple of 8. The number six (六, liù) is also very lucky as it sounds like ‘smooth’ (流, liú), in the sense of having a smooth year. Sometimes chocolate coins are also found in the packets.
They are usually handed out to younger children by their parents, grandparents or relatives on the New Year’s Eve after they give their new year’s greetings to the familiy members.

Day 2

Prayers are offered to ancestors and then other gods. Chinese people like to take care of dogs. This day is considered to be the birthday of all dogs.
The second day of the Chinese New Year is also known as “Kai Nian” in Chinese, meaning the beginning of a year. On this day, shops, businessmen and even ordinary families will offer sacrifices to the God of Fortune who they welcomed on the Chinese New Year’s Eve. They hope the God of Fortune can give them a great fortune in the coming year. The five main sacrifices that big shops in Beijing offer include: a whole pig, a whole lamp, a whole cock, a whole duck, and a live red carp.
In addition, the second day of the Chinese New Year is also commonly referred to as “Ying Xu Ri” in Chinese, meaning the day to welcome sons-in-law. That is because on this day, married daughters will visit the parental home with their husband. They will bring some gifts and red envelopes for the children in their parents’ home. And according to the traditional customs, it is required that the daughters and sons-in-law should have lunch in their parents’ home. This custom provides a chance for sisters to get together, and talk about their old happy days and their everyday lives. In some places, families usually take family portraits on this day.

Days 3 and 4

These days are important for families to keep up their relationships. Every son-in-law should pay respect to his parents-in-law.

Day 5

Traditionally, people should not visit their friends or relatives houses on this day as that would be a bad omen (bring bad luck). They stay at home and worship the God of Wealth. The day is called po-woo.
According to China Daily:
“Commonly known as the Festival of Po Woo, the fifth day of the Chinese New Year is a day when many taboos are believed to be broken. From this day on, women (just sic, or sick misogyny?) can be free to shop around and shops will return to normal on this day.
Also, this day is said to be the birthday of the God of Wealth. People will shoot off firecrackers, trying to win attention of the God of Wealth and thus ensuring his favor and good fortune for the New Year.
In northern China, people eat dumplings on the morning of Po Woo. Nuts or candies are put in the fillings of some dumplings, and many believe whoever eats them will have good fortune for the year.
For the Miao ethnic groups in southern Hunan Province, the lion represents good luck. Local people hold lion dancing activities on the fifth day. This is also the birthday of the Chinese god of wealth”.

Day 6

On this day people visit their friends and relations and visit temples to pray for their well-being.

Day 7

This is Chinese ‘Farmers’ Day’. On this day people eat noodles, a symbol of longevity, and fish, which represent success.

Day 8

People offer midnight prayers to Tian Gong, the god of heaven.

Day 9

Prayers are offered to the Jade Emperor.

Days 10-14

On these days people celebrate by having banquets with loved ones and preparing for the Lantern Festival

Day 15The Lantern Festival

Falling on the fifteenth day of the first lunar month, this is the first full moon of the new year – symbolizing unity and perfection – people hang out lanterns, and eat glutinous rice balls: yuanxiao. Yuanxiao (sweet dumplings made with glutinous rice flour) are one of the special traditions of the Lantern Festival. The Lantern Festival is even sometimes called the Yuanxiao Festival. Another name for yuanxiao is tangyuan, which literally means “boiled spheres.” With the approach of the Lantern Festival, yuanxiao can be seen everywhere, further heightening the festive holiday spirit. The round shape of yuanxiao symbolizes the family circle, and eating yuanxiao symbolizes the hope for family reunions. 
Yuanxiao are not only a traditional holiday food, but also were used to express respect for the deities. Their round shape also represents perfection and unity. Many Chinese holidays involve lanterns. But Lantern Festival represents the epitome of this custom. 
Lanterns are first brought out on the thirteenth day of the first lunar month. They are tested on the fourteenth, formally lit on the fifteenth, and taken down on the eighteenth. The origins of Chinese lanterns reach back to the Stone Age. The coming of the Bronze Age saw the development of various kinds of worked metal lanterns, of which palace lanterns were the most ornate. 
Later, decorative lanterns came to be used in festivals. Various lantern festivals became quite popular during the Sui Dynasty, and during the Southern Song Dynasty, the custom of writing riddles on lanterns emerged. During this time, a festival in Qinhuaihe in Nanjing featured over 10,000 lanterns. During the Qing Dynasty, magnificent exhibitions of lanterns were held in the capital city. Lantern contests were also held, with the dragon lantern being the most famous competitor. Beijing also had a famous lantern market, while southern China was known for shows of lanterns on rivers and lakes. 
Ningxiang County in Shanxi Province became known for its “Mountain Festival of Lights,” during which the mountainside was covered with a festive display of 10,000 lanterns. These festivals not only provided a beautiful show of multicolored lanterns, but also featured a wide range of folk art and performances, such as the Lion Dance, Dragon Lantern Dance, stilt-walking, land-boat racing, and Yangge dancing.

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