Happy New Year…Again

By John Leung Chung-Yin

5000 years ago, the solar calendar did not exist. To compensate, the lunar calendar was developed in China to keep times and dates. Chinese farmers used this cycle to govern their harvesting cycles. This calendar kept a firm set of 12 months at 29-30 days each to create a 354 day year. The first day of every year was set on the first new moon of spring, usually falling around the beginning of February.

Years in the Chinese calendar were arranged into groups of 60, and kept track of with a combination of two strands. The “heavenly stems” or the five elements: wood, fire, earth, metal and water, were categorised into six 10 year blocks, and the “earthly branches”, or the twelve animals of the zodiac, were categorised into five 12 year blocks. When the two strands were paired, they formed a complete date including year, month, day, and hour.

During the 19th century, Sinologists tried to bring the events of the Chinese lunar calendar in line with the Gregorian calendar. After many failed attempts, famed Sinologist Joseph Needham declared that it was impossible, thus leaving the Chinese New Year un-tethered to any specific Gregorian date.


The colour red has a long history in the celebration of Chinese New Year with roots in ancient mythology.

One tale tells of the ancient Chinese living in fear of a ferocious being called the “nien” until an old man found the secret to defeating the beast­–putting red on their homes, and employing loud noise. Soon after, the nien disappeared and the ancients found peace. The tradition continues to this day.

Though it is an interesting story, how much of it is true?

China was as an agrarian society, and wild beasts were not uncommon around the pastures or the farmland. Thus, tactics to scare off beasts who threatened crops and livestock would not have been unheard of.

With regards to the firecrackers, around 1,000 years ago, the Chinese mixed what was said to have been a potion for immortality along with other volatile ingredients, placed them in hollowed-out bamboo tubes, and exploded them for celebratory purposes.

Gunpowder was either stuffed into rockets and launched into the sky or tied into long strings and lit.

While bamboo is no longer used to make firecrackers, these two innovations led to what we now know as fireworks and firecrackers.


Along with the five elements, the 12 animals of the zodiac are part of the identification system of the Chinese lunar calendar’s 60-year cycle and there are many legends as to how the animals were selected.

The legend of the race across the river is most common.

As the story goes, the Jade Emperor (the supreme god) needed 12 animals for the new calendar so he held a race across a river. The crafty Rat devised a clever alliance with the Cat and the Ox to have the Ox ferry the Cat and Rat across the river.

However, the Rat broke his alliance by shoving the Cat into the river and when the Ox neared the finish, the Rat dashed to finish first, thus becoming the first animal on the calendar.

The Ox finished second, followed by the Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Monkey, Rooster, and Dog.

In the end, the Pig beat out the Cat to take the final spot. Therefore, the legend explains not only how the 12 animals came to be, but also why cats chase rats and mice.

Besides the Dragon, which is a legendary creature, all of the creatures are well recognized by all Chinese individuals due to their commonality in China’s landscape. In addition, the animals have served to identify the traits of those born in their years, with the Dragon representing leadership, the Rat representing cunningness, and the Dog representing faithfulness.


As times and values changed, so did the featured menu of this festival. Despite these changes, food continues to play a largely symbolic role in celebrations and in daily life.

On the final night of the old lunar year, all family members regardless of the distance, are expected to come home for a large family meal. Those who cannot manage to return home usually have a symbolic place set for them.

Chinese New Year is also the one time of year that those celebrating it splurge on more expensive items, and items once available only to royalty or the wealthy. Swallows’ nest, sea cucumbers, abalone, and sharks fins, are now more financially accessible to all and served during the festival.

The religious and ceremonial role of food is also well-documented.

In China, the stove god is believed to keep tabs on every family. For generations families have placed candy on their stoves the day before the stove god makes his rounds in hopes that the candy will sweeten his report of them to the heavens.

Homonyms are also used in food, representing greetings and wishes for the New Year.

If a fish is served during the banquet or the meal, it is expected that a part of it is left uneaten. Since the Chinese word for fish is similar to the word for prosperity or surplus, to leave some of the fish uneaten is to guarantee prosperity in the New Year.

Another belief with fish is the unspoken rule to refrain from turning it over when trying to access the flesh below the bone. To turn it over is to reverse good fortune.


For 5,000 years, the Chinese New Year has been a time of celebration.

As society changed with the ages, the importance of this festival remained constant. “Historically, this is the most important festival, and far outstrips anything in second place [in terms of] length of time, the expense, the amount of celebration,” explains Dr. Lloyd Sciban of the Department of East Asian Studies.

“It is far ahead of any secondary festival [in the Chinese social calendar],” he adds.

This importance is spurred by the values the festival represents, which include tradition, ceremony, the importance of family, peace, and harmony, amongst others. All these values come together during the festival and are cherished and celebrated year after year.

For Chinese-Canadians, Chinese New Year is a way to reconnect with their roots, and identify with their culture. It is also a chance to showcase their community to the general public, and invite them to join in the celebration of this event.

It is a chance to get a first hand taste of Chinese culture.

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