A Guide to Chinese New Year: Everything You Need to Know About Traditions, Food, Gifts and More!

Article by Lost Plate Food Tours

Published on December 14, 2018

What and When is Chinese New Year?


In 2021, Chinese New Year falls on February 12th, and in China everyone gets some time off to spend with their families from February 11th through 17th. The first day of Chinese New Year is based on the lunar calendar and is determined by the new moon that appears between January 21 and February 20. However, the direct translation for this holiday in Chinese translates to “Spring Festival” and celebrates the arrival of spring.

Because there isn’t a lot of vacation time or paid time off for many workers in China, the government mandates that everyone gets 7 days off over the lunar new year. For most people, this means time to return to their hometowns to visit family. It may be the only time all year that some people are able to go home so nearly everyone travels. It is estimated that around three billion trips will happen over the week if you tally all trips by plane, train, bus, and ship – the largest human migration in the world! Big cities are usually quite empty, with many shops closed for the week or even longer.

Chinese Zodiac Animals

Each lunar new year, a new zodiac animal gets its time in the sun. 2019 is the year of the pig, which is the final of the twelve zodiac animals. Next year it starts all over again with the rat! The twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac are the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog and pig. To determine your own Chinese zodiac animal, check out the calculation guide here. It is believed that if it is the year of your zodiac animal, you will experience a lot of bad luck – so take note of the tips for good luck that follow!

What do people do during Chinese New Year?

People usually spend new years day doing one of our favorite things – eating! Typical dishes include:

Fish– The word for fish in Chinese is ‘yu’ which sounds like the word for surplus. There are many different steamed fish recipes that people will eat because of the auspicious homophones. There are also many beliefs around how the fish is eaten, including the position of the fish once it is plated!

Dumplings – Dumplings (in Chinese, ‘jiao zi’) can be shaped to look like Chinese silver ingots. Some people believe that the more dumplings you eat during New Year celebrations, the more wealth you will find in the new year. Traditionally, people will eat dumplings around 11PM-12AM on New Year’s Eve listening to the new year count down from their TV. Check out our traditional dumpling recipe!

Glutinous Rice Cakes – Another dish where the name has a double meaning of sorts. The Chinese for these rice cakes sounds like getting higher year after year – so Chinese people associate these rice cakes with success.

Noodles – A dish called longevity noodles, or ‘changshou mian’, are eaten because – you guessed it – they are thought to symbolize a long life. Uncut noodles are fried and served on a plate, or boiled and served in a broth. Try out our Dan Dan Noodle recipe to celebrate.

Oranges – People eat and display oranges and tangerines a lot because it is believed they will bring good luck and fortune. The Chinese for orange/tangerine is chéng which sounds like success. Another way to write tangerine contains the Chinese character for luck.

One thing you won’t do on the first day of the new year? Wash your hair or your clothes! It is thought that if you do that, you might wash away your fortune. You also wouldn’t sweep or take out the garbage for the same reason!

What are some other traditions?

Red – Over the new year holiday, you will notice that people wear and decorate with a lot of red. Red lanterns and paper cutouts can be spotted all over the place. One old tradition is to wear red underwear for the whole season! This is because red is associated with good luck and fortune.

Dinner – On Chinese New Year’s Eve, a family reunion dinner takes place. This is one of the most important meals of the year where everyone gets together. Afterward, families will sit together and watch the CCTV New Year’s Gala, a huge and dazzling affair with musical performances, variety show portions that even includes some audience participation. Followed, of course, by fireworks. This is the largest use of fireworks to happen at once all over the world, every year!

Fireworks: On New Year’s Eve, around meal time, people will also set off fireworks to celebrate. It is less seen in major cities nowadays due to the recent city restrictions. But in medium cities and small cities, you will hear loud firework noise all day and night. (Because lots of people also choose to stay up all night.)

Gifts – This is also the time of year when families will swap the little red envelopes known as hong bao, filled with money – new bills only! Other popular gifts include cartons of cigarettes, alcohol, and fruits (just not pears!). There are as many do’s as there are don’ts for gift giving over the new year. Gifts you definitely should not give? Clocks, shoes, and wallets among other things. Check out this handy guide for more information on the gifts to avoid.

Chinese people all over the world celebrate the new year. From Australia to Canada, nearly every big city has festivities to ring in the Lunar New Year. Nearly 1/6th of the world’s population celebrates the lunar new year, and it’s not just expat Chinese! Vietnam, Thailand, South Korea, and Singapore are just some of the countries that also have their own lunar new year celebrations.

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