The Lunar New Year is a 15 day festival around the first new moon of the traditional Chinese calendar. This calendar is based on the phases of the moon, so the dates change.
The festival is also known as the Spring Festival since it falls when the seasons change from winter to spring.
The festival is an important time to spend with family, giving thanks for the previous year and expressing hope for a prosperous year to come.
In the Chinese lunar calendar, years are named after animals in a 12 year cycle. This animal is said to set the destiny and characters of the people born in the year. It is a little similar to western horoscopes.
In one of the most popular folktales about how the ‘12 zodiac animals’ were chosen, the Jade Emperor (the first god and heavenly emperor) summoned all the animals for a race.
The kindly ox was leading, but he stopped to help the rat cross a river. When they were almost at the other side, the cunning rat jumped ashore, winning the race by a whisker, and became the first animal of the zodiac. The pig stopped to eat and fell asleep, becoming the last zodiac animal often associated with greed.
The animals are also said to balance ‘yin’ and ‘yang’ in the cycle and so bring harmony, a key goal of Daoist thought.
The Chinese New Year celebrations have ancient origins and you would think that it would ‘always’ have been celebrated. Actually, the Spring Festival was outlawed after 1949 under Chairman Mao as a ‘religious festival’.
With China’s ‘open door’ policy from 1978, and particularly since 1996 when a week long holiday was introduced, the Spring Festival has been celebrated once again.
The festival is also celebrated by large Chinese populations outside China. Many Chinese labourers came to San Francisco as part of the 1860s ‘gold rush’. The Spring Festival has been marked ever since, in one of the longest running Chinese New Year celebrations.
There are various Chinese New Year customs, similar to Christmas in the west. Before the new year, homes are cleaned to sweep away bad luck. While on the first day of the new year, homes should not be swept or all the year’s good luck will be swept out.
Also certain foods and colors are prized because they are believed to bring good luck. In southern China, oranges are prized because the Cantonese words for ‘gold’ and ‘mandarin orange’ sound similar. Likewise in northern China, boiled dumplings (jiaozi) are indispensable. They are shaped like gold ingots and symbolise wealth in the year ahead.
In Chinese, “May there be surpluses every year” sounds similar to “May there be fish every year”. The final course of the new year’s eve feast is a whole fish symbolising prosperity, ‘having money leftover’, hence abundance. For stronger symbolism, it will not be eaten completely.
The traditional practices of Chinese New Year can make the festival a difficult time for Christians as they choose not to join in some traditions. However, many Chinese Christians will go home to celebrate with friends and family.
Will you pray for Christians at Lunar New Year? Pray that they will take the gospel home with them.