Traditional Chinese New Year Customs

Chinese Culture

Illustration by Yuwen Yang.

Feb. 18 marks the start of the Chinese New Year and kicks off two weeks of celebrations, eating, and spending time with loved ones — making it the longest holiday in China. Here are some of the most popular Chinese New Year traditions, and how the customs came about, during this Year of the Sheep.

The legend behind Chinese New Year: Passing the new year (guo nian–过年)

Legend has it that a terrible mythical monster, known as Nian, would come out once a year and prey on humans. Everyone lived in terror of being eaten during the winter.

One day, a wise old man said that Nian could be scared off by making loud noises with firecrackers and drums. They also decorated their homes in red, which scared Nian even more — causing it to run off into mountains.

Since then, when the time for Nian’s annual visit comes around, people hang red paper cutouts and scrolls on the doors, wear red clothes, and hang up red lanterns. They make loud music, play drums, dance, and set off firecrackers. Because of this, Nian hasn’t returned since to cause any trouble (or eat any people).

The monster’s name, Nian or 年, is also the Chinese word for “year,” and the Chinese view the “passing of the Nian”, guo nian or 过年, as synonymous with celebrating the new year.