The Lunar New Year, also known as Chinese New Year or the Spring Festival, is one of the most visually distinctive cultural celebrations in the world - and it’s also the reason for the world’s largest annual migration. More than 2 billion people travel during chunyun
, the 40-day Spring Festival travel season, to be with their extended families for the traditional New Year’s Eve feast. Naturally this means that the weeks leading up to the new year are prime time for travel
. And although chunyun
is a specifically Chinese tradition, the phenomenon of travelling to celebrate the Chinese New Year has spread worldwide.
Although its roots are undeniably Chinese, the Spring Festival is much too large a phenomenon to be restricted to just one country. This life-affirming celebration has spread far and wide across the globe with massive events being held in many cities, from Kuala Lumpur to San Francisco.
- Malaysia: Chinese New Year is a big deal in Malaysia, with major celebrations being held in a number of large cities across the country. Many in the Malaysian state of Sabah (in north Borneo) mix Spring Festival traditions with their own customs to create a unique celebration of their own.
- Australia: Sydney’s Chinese New Year celebrations are famous worldwide and may be the largest festival of its kind outside of Asia. This is an entertainment bonanza lasting 3 weeks with dragon boat races, parades, Chinese opera and even a film festival on the cards.
- Singapore: Although each year’s event is a little different to the last, every Lunar New Year in Singapore is a big deal. Parades and dances, floats and fire parties - spectacular celebrations are the order of the day.
- The United States: Large scale events are held for the Chinese New Year in many U.S. cities including Los Angeles, New York and Boston, but none can rival the gigantic affair that San Francisco hosts. Floats, marching bands, lion dancers and acrobatics are just a tiny part of the spectacle that arrives in Frisco’s Chinatown every year.
- France: Lunar New Year celebrations have taken place in Paris since the 1980’s. Held over the course of a month, the main parade in the Quartier Asiatique can attract up to 200,000 festival goers.
In spite of the fact that the Lunar New Year is loved and appreciated all over the world, there are many whose knowledge of the festival is limited to vague notions about fireworks, lanterns and the colour red. As the Year of the Monkey is now just a few weeks away, this is the perfect time to brush up on your Lunar New Year knowledge. Delve a little deeper to discover the fascinating facts behind this massively popular celebration.
The historical origins of the Lunar New Year festival have been lost to the mists of time - what is known is that this is a tradition with roots many thousands of years old. Some claim that it stretches all the way back to the legendary sage-emperors Yao and Shun, more than two thousand years before the birth of Christ, although there’s no way to know for sure.
Its mythological origins are much easier to uncover. According to legend, the Chinese New Year had its beginnings because of a beast called the Nian. The Nian had a taste for villagers, particularly children, so in order to protect themselves the villagers would place food in front of their doors at the start of every new year. This went on for some time until one man got tired of the status quo. Thanks to some advice from a god, he put red paper on his house and prepared firecrackers. It turned out the Nian was afraid of red, so every year people would wear red, hang red lanterns and let off firecrackers to frighten away away the beast - and it was never seen in the village again.
New Year’s Date
The precise date of each Lunar New Year celebration is determined according to the Chinese lunisolar calendar, which means that according to the Gregorian Calendar (the one used almost universally these days) it will fall on a different date each year, somewhere between the 21st of January and the 20th of February. In the 1920’s, the ruling Kuomintang party in China tried to change the date of the Springtime Festival to the Gregorian Calendar’s January 1st but there was such a backlash from the populace that they were forced to change it back. Later, in the 60’s, Chinese New Year celebrations were banned entirely - but this didn’t stick either, with celebrations reinstated 13 years later following the Chinese economic reform.
Festivals are well known for their traditional dishes and the Lunar New Year is certainly no exception. On New Year’s Eve a family reunion feast is held at the house of the most senior member of the family. A sumptuous feast of pork, chicken and fish is customary, along with a communal hot pot symbolising the coming together of family members.
In addition to the foods of the New Year’s Eve feast, there are a number of other dishes traditionally prepared for the Lunar New Year celebration. These are just a few:
- Jiaozi (dumplings) Although these delicious little packets are enjoyed year round, they hold special significance during the Chinese New Year, as they are said to resemble ancient Chinese ingots (i.e. money) making them particularly auspicious.
- Boiled chicken While it’s not the most elaborate of dishes by a long shot, boiled chicken is served for the Spring Festival because it is said that even the poorest of families can afford a chicken to celebrate.
- Mandarin oranges These are the favoured fruit of the festival, due in part to their abundance and partly because in some Chinese dialects their name sounds like the word for luck.
One of the most common traditions associated with the Chinese New Year is the giving of red envelopes. They are given during special occasions or holidays by married couples to single people as a token of good luck and fortune. The packets almost invariably contain money - specifically even numbered amounts of money. Certain amounts are specially favoured ($6 and $8 for example) due to their names sounding like auspicious words such as “wealth” and “smooth”.
Among the most well known traditional fixtures of the Lunar New Year is fireworks. Tracing back to a time when gunpowder was packed into bamboo stems to frighten away evil spirits, today Spring Festival firecrackers are a little more elaborate. Rows of firecrackers are strung together by the hundreds on a long fuse - when one is set off, it sparks a deafening chain reaction that has become a symbol of the joyful celebration of a new year.
If you want to to spend the inception of the Year of the Monkey surrounded by a colourful throng of celebrants, you would do well to sort out your travel plans now, if you haven’t already. Remember, this is one of the busiest times of the year when it comes to travel so the most important step to enjoying this wonderful festival is ensuring that you can get there