For many around the world, the new year doesn’t truly begin until Chinese New Year, the biggest celebration of the year. You may have noticed the red and gold decorations popping up in place of Christmas trees and tinsel at shopping malls and the Christmas jingles fading into cheery Chinese instrumental music in stores.
Chinese New Year (also known as Lunar New Year and Spring Festival) signifies the ending of winter and the beginning of spring in a new lunisolar calendar year. It marks the first new moon of the year which usually falls between 21 January and 20 February. In 2021, the biggest, most important Chinese celebration of the year starts on 12 February - the Year of the Metal Ox.
The Folklore of Chinese New Year
Now, you may wonder what the Chinese zodiac animals are about and what the year of an animal and element means. Like most traditional Chinese festivals, Chinese New Year is entwined with folklore and mythological tales passed down through generations.
The tale of the ‘Heavenly Gate Race’ explains the origin of the 12 Chinese zodiac signs and how the order of Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig came about. This sequence was created according to the order of each animal arriving at the Heavenly Gate in a race to become the 12 Guards of the Jade Emperor. The Rat ranked first thanks to its quick-wittedness of hiding in the Ox’s ear. The hardworking Ox came second followed by the agile Tiger and Rabbit. The cat person in you might think “Was there a cat? Where is the Cat zodiac?” In fact, the Cat was sound asleep in their home and missed their morning alarm.
Combined with the five rotating elements of wood, fire, earth, metal and water, the zodiacs are used to create predictions for the upcoming year. For 2021, the Year of the Metal Ox, there is expected to be a focus on family life, romantic relationships and friendships.
2021 is predicted to be a year of calm after the storm (finally!). It is a time for recovery and starting afresh with hard work and discipline for the potential to yield rewards and success.
The story of the Chinese Zodiac is just one of many Chinese New Year legends. The other widely popularised tale is the one of the mythical beast, the Nian. Every spring, the Nian would storm the village and feast on the villagers, particularly children, at night. The villagers would go into hiding to avoid the attack, but one year, an old man decided to stay in the village alone and get revenge on the monster. To the villagers’ surprise, the old man successfully kept himself and the village intact by putting red papers on the walls and sparking firecrackers.
Since then, the villagers would wear red and put up red lanterns and firecrackers to fill the village with loud sounds to scare away the Nian. The Nian never came to the village again and the traditions of wearing red, decorating the house in red, putting up lanterns and lighting firecrackers has been passed down.
How People From Around the World Celebrate Chinese New Year
Some of the ancient customs for Chinese New Year celebrations are still very common to this day.For instance, families will clean their house on nin ya baat (年廿八), three days before the new year, to sweep away bad fortune and allow space for good luck to flow in in the coming year. Similarly to how Europeans have different ways of celebrating Christmas, there are various traditions within different Chinese communities and even families.
The Vietnamese celebrate Lunar New Year with parades including masqueraded dancers and Mea Lan dancing, and play dice games like Bầu cua tôm cá. Koreans perform rituals like Sebae where children dress in traditional clothing and take a formal traditional bow to greet their elders. Even Chinatowns in Australia will become an extravaganza for dragon boat races, film and food festivals. In Hong Kong, you can expect everything from colourful parades and lion dances to flower markets and intimate get-togethers.
Besides having lion and dragon dancing performances at malls and various shops around Hong Kong, the annual Cathay Pacific International Chinese New Year Night Parade is a much-anticipated parade typically held on the first day of Chinese New Year where floats, dancers, acrobats and musicians would fill the streets of Tsim Sha Tsui.
On the second day of Chinese New Year, the spectacular fireworks display over the infamous Victoria Harbour would draw large crowds along the harbourfront and in boats. It’s definitely one of the BOOQED team’s favourite parts of Chinese New Year too!
Going to the Chinese New Year flower market as a family is also another popular custom in Hong Kong. If the weather is good, it is also customary for families to go on a hike or camping trip for good luck. Each year, the Lam Tsuen Wishing Trees welcome hundreds of tourists and locals who come to wish for prosperity, good health or good fortune. Wishes are written on joss paper with an orange tied to it, and then thrown up into the trees. It is believed that joss paper successfully hung on the tree's branches would make wishes come true.
Last but certainly not least, Chinese New Year is all about family. Family get togethers are always at the top of the New Year to-do list. Families would visit each other’s homes (in Chinese this is referred to as “bai nin”, or “拜年”), enjoy a scrumptious feast and spend quality time with one another. Red pockets or “lai see” are given by family members or friends who are married to children and junior family members.
Chinese New Year Celebrations During the Pandemic
It’s time to address the elephant in the room. Covid-19 had dampened most of last year’s Chinese New Year activities and it looks to remains the same for 2021 as the number of Coronavirus cases continue to fluctuate. But that’s not going to stop us from making the most of it! So, here are a few Chinese New Year activities you can do from the comfort and safety of your home.
Have a movie marathon
While going to the cinema seems like a distant tale from the good ol’ days, you can still catch the various Chinese New Year movies on streaming platforms at home with your loved ones. Stephen Chow’s movies are classics – jam packed with absurd comedic scripts and action-packed visuals.
Some of the most popular titles include All’s Well, Ends Well, Kung Fu Hustle and King of Comedy. My Lucky Star and Fat Choi Spirit are also great choices for getting into the 2000s nostalgia.
Cook up a feast
Instead of going for yum cha in a crowded restaurant, try making a popular dim sum dish or two at home! There are some surprisingly manageable yet no less festive recipes for turnip cakes, sticky rice cakes, dumplings and sesame balls. It can also be a fun activity to do with your family.
Plus, you can give them out as homemade gifts for your friends and relatives. They'll love it.
Work up an appetite with a hike
Make the most of being in Hong Kong and go on a hike at any of the local walking trails. The wishing trees and temples may be closed this Chinese New Year but you can still walk through the countryside and take in the amazing views Hong Kong has to offer.
We would recommend you keep a safe distance from other hikers though, safety first!
Have a Zoom-union
Zoom has become the new way for people to connect with family and friends. Instead of having to travel across town, you can hold a virtual reunion with your relatives and friends, to maintain the tradition of the coming-together. With a little bit of planning, why not throw a Chinese New Year Zoom party so you can have a virtual and safe ‘bai nin’.
You might need to teach your grandparents how to use the app in advance but it'll be worth it!
At its heart, Chinese New Year is a festival about reuniting with friends and family, and the beginning of a new year with opportunities and prosperity to come. So despite the challenges of the past year and the social distancing restrictions, it is important to reflect on and be grateful for the things we have and count our blessings.
Hopefully, we can celebrate Chinese New Year 2022 in person!