A New Year in China
The traditional Chinese calendar, like most Asian calendars, is a lunisolar calendar which reckons years, months and days according to astronomical phenomena. Although China like most nations uses the Gregorian calendar now, it follows the Chinese calendar to determine holidays, and for traditional purposes such as deciding auspicious dates for for weddings, starting a business, etc. The Chinese New Year is one of the most important festivals among the Chinese people and is celebrated on the first new moon between 21 January and 20 February. Its influence on the East cannot be understated, and it has been the source of festivals such as Losar in Tibet, Tet in Vietnam, and the Korean New Year. It is also widely celebrated by the large worldwide Chinese diaspora. In keeping with Confucian values, the Chinese New Year is a time to honor not just deities but also one's ancestors. However, individual practices celebrating the new year vary widely even within China.
Like most storied festivals worth their salt, the Chinese New Year has an interesting mythology. It began with a mythical beast called Nian (the character for which usually means "year" or "new year"), that lives under mountains or seas and comes out at the beginning of the year to villagers, especially children, terrifying local communities. Descriptions of the creature vary from place to place, with some having described it as a "a flat-face lion with a dog's body and prominent incisor" whereas others have called it larger than an elephant, with horns and sharp teeth. Interestingly, whether the Nian is part of traditional ancient Chinese folklore or developed much more recently is a subject of some debate. Either way, it is a core part of Chinese New Year celebrations today with many of the practices associated with Chinese New Year coming from the Nian, such as the wearing of red clothes, the lion dance and the use of fireworks.
Apparently, once it was discovered that the Nian was afraid of the color red, people began wearing red robes around the new year, hanging red lanterns, and using fireworks to create loud noises to drive it away. Some even say that the Chinese lion dance developed as a result of a village successfully chasing the Nian away. The dance itself is quite the performance, and varies in its performances in the North and South of the country. It usually requires the participation of two dancers, one of whom controls the lion's head and the other one takes care of the tail. The Chinese lion dance has several fundamental movements in common with Chinese martial arts, and both are frequently practiced to a lively drum beat.
This year, the new year will commence on the 12th of February, and will be the year of the Ox, the second of the 12 year cycle of animals that forms the Chinese zodiac. The Ox has a long and storied history in Chinese mythology and features extensively among heavenly and earthly beings. The Ox is relevant in Chinese mythology for its role in farming, pulling carriages, and food. the Chinese Ox star more or less corresponds with the Latin Capricornus constellation and is one of the 28 mansions of Chinese constellations. According to one myth popular among Chinese peasants, the original plow-oxen lived in their celestial mansion and were sent to the Earth by the Emperor of Heaven to inform the people that if they worked hard, they would have food aplenty. Unfortunately for the oxen, the message was mixed up and the story put to the people was that working hard would entitle them to three meals in a day. This game of Chinese whispers had the Emperor of Heaven nonplussed, since the guarantee was a tough act to follow. Ultimately, in order to fulfill this promise and to punish the oxen, the latter were relegated to the Earth to aid humans in plowing the field.
Zodiacal ox, showing the Chinese character niú (牛), meaning "ox".
This year of the ox will likely be celebrated with the same zeal and vigor that is traditionally seen every year, even though Covid-19 may cast a bit of a shadow on celebrations. The big event, as always, will be the reunion dinner, not too different a custom from Thanksgiving dinner in the United States as Chinese families get together to usher in the new year. Northern Chinese families will prepare delicious after-dinner jiaozi (dumplings) while their southern counterparts make mouth watering niangao (new year's cakes). Depending on family preference, this would be followed either with a serene prayer for prosperity for one's near and dear in the coming year, or just a good old party or even both. In mainland China, most families will gather around the television to watch the New Year Gala event that will last into the wee hours of the morning. Fifteen days of New Year's celebrations are finally ended with the beautiful Yuanxiao, or lantern festival, bringing the festivities to a close and hopefully kicking off a new year to a great start!