Red Lanterns in an Alley
Photo © Morgane Constanty at SXC
The ancient Chinese calendar is a "lunisolar" calendar, in that it is a hybrid calendar based both on the location of the Moon and the location of the Sun relative to the Earth. In contrast, the Gregorian calendar that is widely used today is primarily a solar calendar, which is derived from the fact that it takes approximately 365 days for the Earth to make one complete orbit around the Sun. As Chinese New Year is an ancient Chinese holiday based on the lunisolar calendar, it doesn't fall on the same Gregorian calendar day each year - it falls within a range of Gregorian calendar days instead. This range spans from January 21 - February 20.
Chinese New Year, also known as Spring Festival, is one of the most important, if not the most important, celebrations in Chinese culture. The celebrations surrounding the holiday last 15 days, and there are a myriad of festivities and observed traditions that occur within those 15 days. Many of these festivities revolve around the origins of the holiday and the mythical beast called Nian, which means "year" or "years" in Chinese.
A long time ago in China, a monster called Nian (?) came down from the mountains once a year and terrorized villagers - small children in particular. The villagers were very afraid of the Nian, so they attempted to use any method possible to frighten the monster away or get it to leave. One of the tactics involved making food for the monster and leaving it on the doorstep so that it would be full and go back to the mountains. At another time, the villagers noticed that it was afraid of a small child who was wearing red. They realized that the Nian was afraid of the color red, and began wearing red at that time of year to keep the beast away. In addition to wearing red, they found that loud noises and fireworks helped frighten the monster.
As legend has it, the Nian still lives in the mountains of China. It is customary to wear red and shoot fireworks each year during the Spring Festival, to help keep the Nian and other evil spirits away. The traditional "Lion Dance" involves several of these customs and many others. According to Wikipedia, each day has its own unique celebration.1 For example, on the first day of the Spring or New Year Festival, people will gather together for large feasts and spend time with family. On the fourth day, people begin returning to work. The eighth, ninth and tenth days involve celebrating the birth of the Jade Emperor, who is considered to be the head of the heavenly bureaucracy.2,3 The festival ends on the fifteenth day which is also known as the Lantern Festival.
Going by the Gregorian calendar, used by most Western Nations including the United States, Chinese New Year is a floating holiday in that it doesn't fall on the same calendar day each year. In the Chinese lunisolar calendar, it falls on the first day of each year.
1. Wikipedia Contributors. "Chinese New Year." Wikipedia. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_new_year (accessed September 30, 1012).
2. Wikipedia Contributors, "Jade Emperor," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Jade_Emperor&oldid=513087716 (accessed September 30, 2012).
3. "Living in the Chinese Cosmos: Understanding Religion in Late-Imperial China." Asia for Educators | Columbia University. http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/cosmos/prb/heavenly.htm (accessed September 30, 2012).