The Chinese New Year marks the beginning of the Chinese lunar year on February 12th, 2021. Although billions of people participate in this 16-day long celebration, many of the holiday’s traditions, taboos, and popular cuisine are unknown by those who celebrate the Gregorian calendar-based new year on January 1st.
Spanning back to the creation of the Chinese calendar in 2637 BCE, this widely-celebrated holiday is steeped in ancient mythology and celestially influenced astrology. Although international travel might not be a viable option this Chinese New Year, we dive into the holiday’s history, traditions, and even drinking games so that you can celebrate like a local from home.
Shengxiao, or the Chinese zodiac, is a 12-year cycle represented by 12 astrological animals in this order: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig. Each new lunar calendar year is governed by an animal whose corresponding attributes, both positive and negative, are associated with the coming year.
2021 will see the transition from a Gold Rat Year to the Year of the Ox, an animal normally associated with hard work and honesty. According to Chinese mythology, the Ox was meant to be first in the cycle but was tricked by the rat and came in second instead. (That sounds very “on brand” for 2020, so fingers crossed that the Year of the Ox brings steadier waters.)
The Chinese zodiac also pertains to individual birthdays—find out your Chinese zodiac sign here. The year of your zodiac sign is considered the unluckiest of the 12-year cycle, but luckily, several long-lived traditions help attract happiness, prosperity, and good fortune in the coming year.
The Chinese New Year legend depicts a wild beast named Nian (also the word for year) who appeared at the end of each year and killed villagers. Loud noises, bright lights, and bold colors scared the monster away, and thus the Chinese New Year traditions were born.
Most Chinese New Year celebrations are awash with the color red due to its believed ability to ward off Nian and any other misfortune. The color red is used to welcome wealth and good fortune in the new year, from indoor and outdoor decorations to clothing.
Noisy, bright, and fantastic fireworks displays are a regular staple of Chinese New Year celebrations, serving to ward off Nian and celebrate when the gods of prosperity came down from the heavens to Earth. The fifth day of festivities, Jie Cai Ceng, normally involves businesses setting off firecrackers to bring prosperity and good fortune.
While many metropolitan areas of China observe a week-long vacation for the first half of the Chinese New Year, the fifth day is when many people must return to work. To keep the celebratory spirit alive, dancing dragon performances are sometimes held outside of office buildings. Dragons also are an important part of Chinese culture and represent good luck and fortune.
Buying new clothes or household items is another common Chinese New Year custom. Wearing new clothes to celebrate the new year is thought to prepare individuals for fresh beginnings and invites new things, material or otherwise, in the rest of the year. Those celebrating their Zodiac year should wear a new piece of red clothing to up the fortune-bringing power.
Whatever happens during the Chinese New Year is thought to set the stage for the rest of the year. Because of this, certain things are considered “taboo” during the 16-day-long celebration. Fighting, crying, demanding payments, going into debt, and even visiting the doctor during the new year can be seen as setting oneself up for a year full of conflict, sorrow, financial issues, or health issues.
Negative words like death, sick, empty, pain, ghost, poor, or kill should be avoided. It’s also believed to be bad luck to wish someone New Year’s blessings while they’re in bed; doing so makes a person liable to be bedridden for the rest of the year.
One particular taboo we can certainly get behind is the “no cleaning” rule. While houses are often deep cleaned in preparation for the holiday, it is considered incredibly unlucky to sweep, launder, or otherwise clean on New Year’s Day or the day after, as it’s believed to “sweep away” good fortune.
Finally, it might be best to schedule your next trim before February 11th and after February 14th. Scissors, knives, and other sharp objects are thought to be unlucky on New Year’s Day. These sharp objects cut off streams of wealth and success.
One of the most important parts of any celebration is the food, and to have an authentic Chinese New Year means eating like a local. Dumplings, rice-based dishes, and brightly-colored sponge cakes are popular staples of celebratory Chinese cuisine and are as delicious as they are festive.
Classic Chinese Dumplings, or Jiaozi, are believed to bring wealth in the coming year and are most commonly eaten on the first and fifth day of festivities. Coins, candies, or peanuts are sometimes wrapped in dumplings to bring good fortune to the lucky recipient.
Eight treasures rice is a flavorful rice dish made of rice, walnuts, dried fruit, sweet red bean paste, jujube dates, and almonds. Sweet glutinous rice balls are stuffed with black sesame, peanut butter, or other fillings to make Tang Yuan, whose round shape represents reunion, harmony, and happiness.
An old Chinese saying can be roughly translated to, “a thousand cups of wine is not too much when best friends meet”—a sentiment we have also shared at many a bottomless mimosa bar. Alcohol plays an important part in socialization in China; the Chinese word for “alcohol” is actually a homophone of the word for “long-lasting,” a tribute to its role in toasting to everlasting friendships, happiness, and other wishes.
Any alcohol consumed over the New Year is considered Nianjiu, or “year alcohol.” The particular kind of alcohol varies from house to house but can include White Sorghum Wine (baijiu), Jiao wine made with Sichuan pepper flowers and cypress tree leaves, or a rhubarb- and herb-infused Tusu wine.
Popular Chinese drinking games have been historically categorized as either sophisticated or common. Sophisticated drinking games include word games, poetry, and riddles—those who can’t come up with an answer or a line have to drink. Common games are more lighthearted and easily accessible: rock, paper, scissors; huá quán; and dice and card games are all popular drinking games to play over the New Year holiday.
We think it’s safe to say everyone could use an extra dash of good fortune after a year like 2020, and joining the Chinese New Year celebration is an excellent (and fun) way to do just that. Don your best red apparel, crack open a bottle of rice wine, and enjoy a delicious meal of savory dumplings, fluffy rice, and sponge cakes.
Ganbei! Here’s to hoping the Ox treats us better than the Rat.