China’s biggest holiday of the year is 春节 (“chun jie” – Spring Festival), or Chinese New Year as it’s referred to in the West. Spring Festival is like Christmas and New Year’s Eve combined into a one week super-holiday. Nearly everyone returns home to see their family during Spring Festival, so it’s the annual cause of the largest human migration on Earth; every year China sets a new record for the most people traveling at the same time. Last year, around 260 million people traveled to various parts of the country within just a matter of days.
Because Chinese holidays are set according to the lunar calendar, the Chinese New Year doesn’t usually start until late January or early February – this year, Spring Festival started on February 18th. Unlike Christmas and New Year in the Western world, which are traditionally only celebrated for one day each, Spring Festival is celebrated from the last day of the last month, for fifteen days until the Lantern Festival on the fifteenth day of the first month. Throughout these fifteen days, people have dinners at home with loved ones, play traditional Chinese games like Mahjong, and exchange gifts such as 红包 (“hong bao” – red envelopes full of money). It is also tradition to wear new clothes at the start of the New Year, so the few days before the Spring Festival begins it’s common for everyone to go shopping for new (usually red) clothes.
The staple food during Chinese Spring Festival is dumplings. The 馅儿 (“xian’er” – stuffing, or flavor) varies by region. In the north for example, Spring Festival dumplings are often filled with pork, shrimp, and leeks. Another salient feature of Spring Festival is the hanging of red lanterns along the road, and 春联 (“Chun lian” – Spring Festival couplets) on doorways and windows. These are usually adorned with Chinese characters for happiness, health and fortune. It is believed that hanging these symbols in your house will bring good luck in the New Year.
Perhaps the most important (and loudest) part of Spring Festival is playing with firecrackers. Unlike in the west where we shoot fireworks into the sky for the New Year, Chinese firecrackers are smaller in size, but larger in number. Instead of shooting off a single rocket, the Chinese will light firecrackers that are several meters long with several thousand smaller bangs. The shooting of fireworks and firecrackers can be heard year round in China (especially during weddings or when a new business opens), but Spring Festival is when they are most prevalent. At midnight of the New Year, you will hear hundreds of thousands of firecrackers being set off simultaneously, and the festivities last deep into the night. The purpose is to scare away evil spirits with the loud noise, and as a blessing to mark a new beginning.
Although celebrations are similar across China, some Spring Festival traditions are slightly different from place to place. Big, modern cities like Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai and Chongqing – though in different parts of the country – celebrate Spring Festival in a very similar fashion. But each province has their own way of doing things. This is especially true as you venture further into the countryside to the small villages; there are ways of celebrating that are unique to their specific location.
Being in China during Spring Festival is indeed a remarkable and memorable experience. Aspects of it remind me of Christmas in my home country of Denmark; it’s not necessarily just about gifts and food, but a chance to spend time with family and enjoy the spirit of the season. Enjoying this type of festive season while living abroad is very special, and is a great reminder of why I have chosen China as a place to live and work.
By: Mikkel Larsen