To many Westerners, Chinese New Year is a mysterious holiday with much celebrating. There are two names for it in China. The formal name is “Chun Jie,” which means “Spring Festival,” and the informal name is “Guo Nian,” or “Passing the year”.
According to historical records, New Year was celebrated at different dates in Chinese history. Some dynasties chose the ceremony date of their first emperor as the first day of the year. The most popular date is from the Xia dynasty (c. 2200 – 1750 BC). The ceremony date of the first Xia dynasty emperor was the first new moon after the handle of the Big Dipper points 30 degrees northeast. The calendar was called “Xia Li” (Xia calendar) or “Nong Li” (farmer’s calendar). It divides the year into 24 solar periods. The names given to many of these periods are of agricultural origin. This calendar combined astronomy, the weather, agriculture and the environment into one system, which makes it popular even today.
The Chinese New Year is always close to February 4th each year. The name of the solar period that begins at that time is called ‘Spring Begins,’ therefore it is a celebration of the beginning of spring, and spring indicates the beginning of a year in most people’s minds (i.e., the time of new beginnings).
“Guo Nian” – Passing the year – is a very informal yet popular term among the Chinese. There is a folktale behind the name. A long time ago, a monster named “Nian” (Year), who lived underwater, invaded a village every new year’s eve. One day, an old beggar was passing through the village. He saw the villagers running to the mountain because it was New Year’s eve and the monster was going to invade the village again. In the mean time, an old woman offered him a lot of food. The old man said, “I have a trick to scare the monster away”. That evening, the monster arrived and saw that the whole village was dark, except for one house that was red and bright. He approached the house and suddenly firecrackers went off, and kept going off endlessly. The monster was so afraid that he never came back again. When the villagers returned, they saw that the monster hadn’t invaded the old woman’s house, so they lit the lantern and set off firecrackers every new year’s eve. The tradition continues to this day.
The formal name emphasises the beginning of the year, the informal one celebrates the end of the year gone by. The reality is that the end of the past year is also the beginning of the next year. According to tradition, after autumn harvest, people have accumulated enough wealth to be able to afford many goods and foods in order to celebrate the completion of a year, of a cycle. And the most important theme is that this is a chance for the whole family to be together.
–Dr. Thomas Zhang