Happy New Year’s Eve and happy Year of the Rat as that pesky little critter is the official animal of the 2020 Chinese New Year. Out with a decade and in with a rodent! Eeeewww!
As heinous as that sounds, it’s really not all bad. And even though I wouldn’t say I’m China’s biggest fan, I am fascinated by its history and traditions and since the Year of the Rat is my year according to the year I was born, I thought I’d have a quick look see at what it all means.
Different birth years have different animals, with 2020’s recent years being 1924, 1936, 1948, 1960, 1972, 1984, 1996, 2008, and 2020. I’m officially one of those so it was a no brainer that I research and write about it. There’s a lot though so I’m splitting things up.
Today: everything and anything you’ve wanted to know about Chinese New Years.
Tomorrow: everything and anything you want to know about The Year of the Rat.
I do know a little bit about it all, as a few years back I hosted a dinner party around this same time of year and researched each attendee’s birth year Chinese New Year animal and shared them as a table topic. It was great fun and I learned a lot.
The Chinese New Year has 4,000 year history and is celebrated by more than 20 percent of the world. It is also known as Spring Festival, or chunjie, and is the most important holiday in China and to Chinese people everywhere and that’s a lot of people, as one out of every five people in the world is Chinese. In addition to the locales you’d expect to celebrate the event, London, San Francisco, and Sydney claim the biggest ones outside of Asia.
In this century, the national holiday starts on the first of the Lunar Calendar and lasts until the 15th of the first month. (And if you’re wondering, a Lunar Calendar calculates months using the moon, while the more widely used Gregorian Calendar is based on the sun’s movement.) This year it starts January 25 and ends February 8. As the first day arrives, its weather, stars, and the moon are analyzed and fortunes for the year are predicted.
Make no mistake, each Chinese New Year is a huge national holiday and a majority of stores are closed. Tradition and custom call for you to spend time with your family the first four days and only go out after the fifth day. On New Year’s Eve, all family members near and far are to reunite and since the Chinese population is spread so vastly between rural and urban areas, the migration back home on that day is utter chaos. Train tickets can only be bought 60 days in advance, creating a frenzy of 1,000 tickets said to be sold each second. And let’s for one minute picture the trains and train stations. I love my family, but no.
Celebrations are HUGE events with fireworks displays that rival any Fourth of July celebration. It is said that on Chinese New Year’s Eve, the most fireworks in the world are set off with more being blasted on New Year’s Day morning to welcome the new year and to bring good luck. But they’re not just fun and games, as pyrotechnics are thought to scare off monsters and bad luck as is the color red, which you’ll see on homes, in clothing, and in those beautiful lanterns.
We’ve all heard of or seen photos of lantern festivals and they are truly a sight to be seen. The festivals indicate the end of Chinese New Year celebrations and are a night of partying and freedom. Back in the day, girls weren’t allowed to go outside by themselves but on Lantern Fest night they could, sometimes resulting in new love being found. Today it is also appropriately considered a sort of Valentine’s Day in China.
As with anything Chinese or tradition-laden, there are many Spring Fest do’s and don’ts. Showering on New Year’s Day and sweeping or throwing out trash before the fifth day are banned as to avoid washing off or throwing away good luck. Sweeping is to be done the day before Spring Fest starts, as is all cleaning, to get rid of bad luck and make room for good luck. Most hair salons are closed during the entire Chinese New Year celebration because cutting hair and using scissors, knives, or any sharp items is taboo.
Similar to our Thanksgiving meal, food and drink play a big role in Chinese New Year festivities and some have special meanings and traditions, much like our turkeys and stuffing on Thanksgiving and Yule logs or tamales on Christmas. Dumplings are consumed every day for almost every meal, although they are more of a northern thing as in the South, spring rolls and rice balls are preferred. As for drinks, there are wines specifically harvested for Spring Fest and it’s customary to have a different wine for each ceremony, meal, or event. All meals also follow strict etiquette and toasting rules.
But what about those year animals? Kinda like the Western horoscope system that includes 12 zodiacs, one for each month, there are also 12 Chinese zodiacs but the animals associated with each are for the entire year and are very culturally significant. They can determine or help you decide your career, relationships, and even health.
Traditionally your zodiac year is one of bad luck and often laden with mishaps, but it is believed 2020 will be reasonably good for the Rat. Just in case, I will adhere to the belief that the color red is my weapon of defense so I will decorate with it and wear it. Maybe a little crimson with my cream?
Tomorrow I’ll dive into The Year of the Rat including traits and lives of “rats” and see if I match them, and also what all you rats out there might expect in this, your Chinese New Year.
Until then, xin nian kuai le, gong hei fat choy, and gong xi fa cai!