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This page primarily provides text information about the traditions and customs surrounding Chinese New Year.
Although we make suggestions for costumes relating to this theme below. (and provide a link to our Oriental Theme Page), potential hirers might wish to exercise discretion in their choices in view of the ethnic aspects involved, which may cause offence to some.  

Whereas the date of New Year in most of the Western World is fixed at January 1st., other cultures and religions may use other dates. Following calendar reform in the Han Dynasty around 2000 years ago, the Chinese settled on a system which ties the date of New Year to the lunar year (which is shorter than the solar year). This system means that whereas we put an extra day into our calendar every four years, the Chinese put in a whole extra ('intercalary') month in the fourth year. The New Year date itself is roughly halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, and therefore will be somewhere between 21 January and 20 February. For 2024, the Year of the Dragon starts on 10 February.

As most people know, Chinese Years run in a 12 year cycle with each named after an animal. Legend has it that these were the twelve animals which attended a New Year Party held by Buddha. The cycle starts with the Rat (2020), who hitched a ride on the back of the ox and then jumped off to run ahead to get there first. He is followed by the Ox (or Water-buffalo)  (2021), Tiger (2022), Rabbit (2023), Dragon (2024), Snake (2025), Horse (2026), Ram (2027), Monkey (2028), Rooster (2029), Dog (2030) and Pig (2031). Other animal substitutes occur in other sources: The Ram is sometimes a Goat and according to some, the year 2000 started in the Year of the Cat!

To the non-Chinese it is probably difficult to appreciate the tremendous importance of the Chinese New Year to almost all aspects of business and social life: Everyone knows what 'animal' they are, business negotiations are influenced by the 'animals' involved and as the old year ends, maternity wards may be crowded with women wanting to be induced, so their child will be born in  the 'right' year.

The underlying theme of New Year is one of renewal, settlement of debts and the ability to start afresh. The festivities cause disruption to daily normal life and traditionally used to last for fifteen days. In modern times, as Life and, more importantly, Business has to go on, the festival is usually kept to three days. To the Chinese, the festival combines the elements of the strong family occasion we celebrate at Christmas (and the Americans have at Thanksgiving), and the renewal of spiritual beliefs many faiths celebrate at their respective major celebrations and observances.


With renewal the keynote, the twentieth day of the Twelfth Moon is designated as a day for floor-sweeping. This involves a top to bottom spring-clean to rid households of the dust and misfortunes of the past year. (Once the New Year starts, sweeping, cleaning and even washing is banned for two days in case any new luck is accidentally destroyed).

Once houses are cleaned, households then start to stock up with food and presents for the New Year on the assumption that  shops will be closed (much as we do for Christmas). On New Years Eve, everyone (including children) is expected to stay up to past midnight - failing to do so is said to shorten your life - and much like a combination of our Christmas and New Year, the streets and temples are filled with people as the New Year starts.

Other customs involve strewing courtyards with tree branches and setting fire to them just before midnight, or letting off fire crackers to scare off any Evil and prevent it entering the New Year.

Luck Papers, Decorations and Dragons

A major feature of the New Year Festivities (and decorations for a Chinese New Year Party) are Luck Papers - red strips of paper with auspicious characters, symbols and sayings on them (usually in gold print). They are normally pasted either side of the doorways and on the lintels, in order to welcome the Gods of the New Year and attract their favour. Other papers featuring characters such as the Fu (Happiness), Lu (Success) and Tai Chi (Good Luck) and depictions of the Gods and symbolic figures, or objects such as fish and well-fed children, are hung around the rest of the house.

These papers are easily obtainable (along with depictions of the relevant Animal of the coming year) from Chinese artefact shops and, of course, the Internet, over the New Year period. Additionally, specialist street-traders will write out personal luck papers if required. Aside from these specialist outlets, poster and print shops are increasingly carrying framed representations of Chinese characters (sometimes with translations) and other artefacts (candles and candle-holders, incense burners, etc.,) can also be found fairly easily.

Red and Gold are the colours denoting prosperity and wealth, and hence these should feature heavily as the theme colours. Also, one of the presents given to relatives, especially children, over the period are 'Red Packets' - envelopes containing token amounts of money. Similar envelopes, probably containing facsimile money, can also feature as decorations. One of the spectacles of the New Year festivities is the Feeding of the Luck Dragon in which a ceremonial dragon, accompanied by percussionist, 'dances' around the streets and in and out of shops and is 'fed' with red packets, either put directly into its mouth or dangled on fishing lines from upper floors (it brings its own step-ladder to help it reach!).

General Oriental Costume Suggestions

Aladdin:- The 1001 Arabian Nights stories put Aladdin in the Middle East, but the traditional British pantomime Aladdin has always been set in and around Peking, with the opportunity for some joke oriental names such as Wishee-Washee, Princesses So-Hi, So-Lo and So On.

Chinese Juggler:- Any loose-fitting oriental tunic and trousers can be used here. Accessories can include either a diablo or 'spinning plate on a stick'!

Chinese Lion:- A gold jumpsuit, leotard and elaborate make-up can achieve this striking costume idea.

Chinese Opera Star:- Ornate costume (usually in red, white and gold) with matching headdress and stylised make-up.

Coolie:- Simple tunic and trouser outfit, plus the classic low conical hat (although other shapes and styles can be found). Dragon:- The Chinese Dragon is a more flamboyant entity than his English/Welsh counterpart.

Geisha:- Traditional Japanese hostess in kimono and obi waistband. Stylised white-face geisha make-up and wig complete the costume. A suitable parasol may also be carried.

Fu-Manchu:- Inscrutable Chinese villain created by Sax Rohmer. Costume similar to that of the Mandarin.

Kabuki Actor:- The Kabuki style of Oriental theatre offers minimal scenery, the colour and spectacle deriving from the costumes and make-up of the actors. Although dialogue exists in Kabuki productions, the actor's character and demeanour is conveyed by their gestures and the mask-like make-up.

King of Siam:- Principal character in the stage musical/film 'The King and I'. The bald Yul Brynner made the role his own, but the more recent musical and film have rekindled interest in this character.

Mandarin:- A senior bureaucrat within the Chinese Empire. Costume normally comprises ornate oriental robe(s) with matching headdress. A black pigtail and long, thin drooping moustache is also customary.

Martial Arts Master/Mistress:- Judo, Karate, Kung-Fu - each discipline has its own outfit and accessories.

Ninja:- Black-clad oriental fighters. Usually carries weaponry, concealed or otherwise.

Samurai:- Fearsome (and fearless) Japanese warriors, famous for their swordsmanship. The costume, though specialist is available in latex rubber from some suppliers.

Sumo Wrestler:- As with many aspects of the Orient, the rules and procedures of Sumo Wrestling are steeped in tradition (throwing salt into the ring to purify it, ritual chants, etc.). The star wrestlers are massive, in more ways than one. For a time, the sport also had quite a following in this country, being featured by Channel Four for several seasons.

Siamese Cat:- A standard cat costume and an oriental make-up can create this sleek feline.

Temple Dancer:- Exotic dancers associated with Old Siam. Costume and headdress are elaborate, but as such outfits have featured in stage plays from 'King & I' to 'Chess', it may be possible to find a supplier.

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