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Chinese New Year: Legend, Traditions, and Customs

Updated on September 4, 2017
Red packets or Hongbao
Red packets or Hongbao | Source

Chinese New Year is also commonly referred to as Chinese Lunar New Year, Lunar New Year, or Spring Festival. It is the most important Chinese festival celebrated by the Chinese and Chinese communities all over the world.

The date of the Chinese New Year is the first day of the first lunar month in the Chinese calendar. It is usually in late January or early February.

2013 Chinese New Year will be on 10th February.


There is an ancient legend about a mythical beast known as ‘Nian’ (年). It lived at the bottom of the sea throughout the year and only come out on the eve of the Chinese New Year. It would rampage through the village and even gobble the villagers, especially children. Hence, on the eve of every New Year, people have to flee to the remote mountains to escape the danger.

The people later came to know about the way to defeat the monster. ‘Nian’ was afraid of red colour, the sound of fireworks, and bright lights.

For the following New Year’s Eve, people glued red couplets on the door, stayed up late or through the night with brightly lit lanterns, and set firecrackers. From then on, New Year’s Eve passed off peacefully without any more trouble from the ‘Nian’.

That is why the Lunar New Year is often called ‘Guo Nian’ (过年) in Chinese. The term ‘Guo Nian’ means something like ‘having avoided the beast Nian’.

Traditions and customs

There are numerous traditions and customs for the Lunar New Year. As the Chinese people come from different regions and dialects, their customs may vary.

Having gone through so many Chinese New Years, I am more familiar with the traditions and customs described below, which are mostly of Cantonese origins:

Wei-ya Dinner ( 尾牙)

Chinese businesses will hold a traditional year-end dinner for their staff on the 16th day of the 12th lunar month. A steamed chicken dish is a must-have for such an occasion as it serves a special purpose.

Workers are afraid of having the chicken head placed towards oneself because this is meant to be a hint that he/she will be fired.

Aware of this custom, bosses nowadays have the chicken head faces himself/herself so that their staff can relax and enjoy the delicious feast.

Thanksgiving offerings (还 神)

To show gratitude for the gods’ blessings throughout the year, people will go to the temple to say their thanksgiving prayers and make offerings to the gods on an auspicious day before the year ends.

Thanking stove ( 谢 灶)

For those who worship the Stove God at home, offerings of thanks will have to be conducted before this deity returns to Heaven in the last few days of the year. It is believed that the Stove God will report to Heaven on the family’s good and bad deeds throughout the year.

Apart from the usual offerings of fatty pork, rice wine and joss-sticks, sweets are indispensable. The purpose of including sweets in the offerings is to ‘glue’ the mouth of the deity with the sticky sweets, so that he will not be able to say bad things about the family.

According to traditions, common folks have to use the 24th day of the 12th lunar month to conduct above offerings. Government officials will use the 23rd day while fishermen will use 25th for the thanksgiving ceremony. ( 官三, 民四, 渔民五 )

Some people worship other deities at home too. As these deities are believed to report to Heaven around the same time as the Stove God, most people will have the thanksgiving session for the Stove God, together with the “sending off of deities to Heaven” (送神) ceremony, on the same day.

The Stove God are said to return to the house on New Year’s Eve while the rest will be back only on the 4th day of the New Year.


Cleaning the altar and the house signifies cleansing away bad luck, bidding farewell to the “old” and ushering in the “new” because dust is traditionally associated with “old”.

Water soaked with promenade leaves or clove is used for the cleansing.

In ancient days, the cleaning was usually carried out on the 28th day of the 12th lunar month (年二十八, 洗邋遢). Nowadays, most families will do the cleaning one to two weeks before the festival.

Chinese New Year's couplets
Chinese New Year's couplets | Source

New Year’s couplets (挥春)

After the house has been cleansed, New Year decorations will begin, which include pasting couplets on the door and the inside of the home.

Couplets are red pieces of paper with auspicious phrases written on it. The pasting of couplets (usually in pairs) is to be done on an auspicious date.

Red paper-cuts of auspicious Chinese character are sometimes used in place of the red couplets.

Festive gifts for parents

Traditionally, married couples have to buy festive gifts for their parents. For those who can afford, such gifts usually include expensive stuff such as sea cucumber, mushrooms, abalone, barbequed pork, and so forth. The presents are given before the festival day.

Nian gao, Chinese New Year cake
Nian gao, Chinese New Year cake | Source

“Complete box” (全盒 )

The term “Complete box” refers to the candy box used for serving visitors during Chinese New Year. It is a round box with eight or nine compartments, in the shape of a sunflower.

A variety of snacks in the form of dried candied fruits, nuts and seeds are displayed in the box. Dried candied items are lotus seeds, lotus roots, kumquat, pineapple slices, coconut slices, ginger, and winter melon. Melon seeds, peanuts, and deep fried peanut puffs are also included.

The New Year glutinous rice cake, nian gao (年糕), is an auspicious food item in every home.

Each of the items displayed contains some kind of blessings. For example, peanuts stand for “longevity” while “nian gao” symbolizes “reaching higher and higher heights in one’s career”.

The candy box represents “completion or perfection” because of its round shape.

Display of lucky plants

Certain types of plants are available only during the New Year festive season. These plants, such as kumquat, peach blossom and pussy willow, are in great demand during such time as they represent some lucky meanings.

Please refer to "Lucky Plants for Chinese New Year" for more details.

Settlement of debts

All debts (especially money) must be cleared by the eve of the New Year. It is considered extremely bad luck to have one’s debts carried forward to the next year.

“Pressing of year” custom (轧 年)

On Chinese New Year’s Eve, the Cantonese have a custom of stocking up the following items: celery, leeks, spring onions, two daces (Chinese mud carps), lettuce with roots, and sometimes two sticks of sugar canes (must be with roots and leaves). These items will be needed for the lunch preparation on the 2nd day of the New Year.

During the festive period, having auspicious omens are of utmost importance. Each of the above items has some symbolisms as follows:

· fish – abundance year after year

· lettuce – known in Chinese as “生菜”. 生means “born” or “give rise to” and 菜 is a homophone of 财(wealth). Hence, lettuce stands for “an increase in wealth”.

· celery, spring onions and leeks – their Cantonese pronunciations sound like “hardworking”, “intelligent” and “smart in calculating”. So these items are used to symbolize “adults will be hardworking and kids will be intelligent in their studies”.

· sugar canes (with leaves and roots) – Their sweetness signifies lovingness of couples. As they come complete with roots and leaves, completeness is also represented.

On the Eve, an even number of kumquats and red packets have to be placed at the head of the bed, to signify good luck.

Red packet (‘hongbao’ or ‘ang pow’)

It is customary for married couples to give red packets (红包) to kids or young singles relatives during Chinese New Year’s visits.

A red packet is a red envelope containing a small token sum. It is called ‘hongbao’ or ‘ang pow’ . The Cantonese term for hongbao is ‘lai sze’ (利是 or 利市), meaning ‘lucky’.

During Chinese New Year, major banks, corporations and departmental stores will print unique hongbao envelopes bearing their logos to give away to their customers. The hongbao envelopes usually have beautiful and auspicious motifs printed on them.

Red packets have to be ready by New Year’s Eve as they will be needed during the rounds of visits on the very next day.

Reunion dinner and New Year festivities

The traditions and customs listed above concern mainly the preparation for the Lunar New Year.

For the traditions and customs of Reunion Dinner and New Year festivities, please refer to Traditions-and-customs-of-chinese-lunar-new-year. 

© 2011 pinkytoky


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    • pinkytoky profile image

      pinkytoky 6 years ago from Singapore

      Hi crosby123, legends and traditions can be very interesting. It is a pity that most of these are lost because youngsters nowadays do not like to listen to old folks' tales.

    • crosby123 profile image

      crosby123 6 years ago from Georgetown

      Great hubs! I learn the theoretical way of chinese new year now, usually is listen to grandfather and grandmother telling the tales.