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Celebrating the Chinese New Year

Lions and Dragons and Dumplings, Oh My

In ancient times, according to legend, a fierce monster descended on a small Chinese village at the time of the New Year and threatened to destroy it. It returned the following winter, ravaging the village and terrorizing its people. By the third year, the villagers were ready: They hung red banners to ward off evil, and made fearsome noises. The beast was scared away, and the town celebrated for days. Chinese New Year is still celebrated with firecrackers, banners, parades, and feasts to protect against evil, prepare for a fresh start, and to herald the arrival of spring.

Also called the Lunar New Year, the holiday begins on the second new moon after the winter solstice, usually in late January or early February. In 2008 it begins on February 7, ushering in the Year of the Rat. The celebration ends 15 days later with the Lantern Festival, a spectacular procession featuring musicians, clowns, martial arts clubs, and a long, fierce dragon.

Preparations for the New Year begin well in advance, marked by traditions rich in symbolism and superstition. Families clean the house from top to bottom to sweep out bad luck at the start of the holiday. People buy new clothes and pay off debts. It’s customary to get a haircut before the holiday, because the Chinese word for hair is similar to the word for prosperity, and you don’t want to cut your prosperity as the year is starting.

To celebrate Chinese New Year:

  • Fill your home with fruit and plants. Oranges represent wealth; tangerines with leaves are good luck. A plant that blooms on New Year’s Day brings good fortune.
  • Let the kids stay up late on New Year’s Eve. According to an old saying, the longer the children stay up, the longer their parents will live.
  • Invite friends and family to a New Year’s feast. Serve symbolic foods: a whole fish, for bounty; dried oysters, for a successful business; fried dumplings, which resemble golden coins.
  • Decorate your home with chun lian—couplets offering good wishes—written in Chinese characters on red paper. For more info, and for printable chun lian, go to
  • Give your children small red envelopes, called lai see or hong-bao, with lucky money tucked inside.
  • Contact local Chinese organizations to find out where you can see a Lion Dance or Lantern Festival.

Rochelle Green is a freelance writer and editor living in Connecticut.

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