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 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 21st January and 20th 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 (28), Rooster (29), Dog (30) and Pig (31). 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 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!).