Chinese New Year celebrations pave the way for good fortune and are a chance for families and neighbours to get together

It might just be Chinese whispers, but someone once told me that Nicholas Cage, thinking he was born in the Year of the Dragon, had one tattooed on his arm. He then found out that Chinese New Year falls on a different date each year – and he was actually born in the Year of the Rabbit.

The Chinese calendar is based around the cycles of the moon and dates back to 2600BC when the Emperor Huang Ti introduced the first zodiac. The Chinese lunar calendar, like the Gregorian calendar, follows a 12-month cycle. However, because the Chinese calendar is linked to the waxing and waning of the moon, the date of New Year fluctuates from year to year, between the end of January and mid-February. A complete zodiacal cycle takes 60 years and is made up of five cycles of 12 years each. And each year is named after an animal.

There are a number of different stories explaining why the different animals were chosen. One of the most popular states that before he departed the earth, Lord Buddha summoned all the animals to him to bid him farewell. However, only 12 turned up. As a reward Buddha named a year after each animal in the order that they arrived.

The 12 animals have varying characteristics and your character is supposed to resemble the animal from the year in which you were born. The Chinese say "this is the animal that hides in your heart."

This year Chinese New Year fell on 12 February and the year is now 4699. The reign of the Snake has ended and the Year of the Horse has just begun.

Chinese New Year lasts for two or three days, but the new year season lasts from the middle of the 12th month until the middle of the first. Traditionally, celebrations span 15 days, from the New Moon on New Year's Day to the full moon 15 days later. New Year was originally a religious festival and a time when the family ancestors were honoured. Today it's still very much a family affair and a time for thanksgiving.

Before New Year, people clean their houses thoroughly, hoping to sweep away ill-fortune and make room for good luck to come in. Superstition dictates that all cleaning must be finished before New Year's Day, for fear of sweeping away the coming year's good luck. You're not supposed to wash your hair on New Year's Day in case you wash away your good fortune.

Homage is paid to the Kitchen God, the guardian of hearth and home who flies off to the heavens to report on the family's behaviour to the Jade Emperor. People give their doors and window frames a lick of paint, usually in red. Red and gold paper is cut up and hung on the walls and doors (red for happiness and gold for wealth). The paper is shaped into characters representing longevity, prosperity and happiness, and firecrackers are let off to scare away evil spirits.

New Year's Eve itself is a time for families to gather for a huge feast. Many of the dishes have symbolic meanings. A whole fish is often placed on the table to represent abundance, shrimp for happiness and oysters for business success. Long noodles and peanuts signify a long life, lotus seed many male children, candied melon good health, and coconut togetherness. One of the most popular delicacies is jiaozi (dumplings).

The lights are left on all night and at midnight fireworks light up the sky to welcome in the New Year. Doors and windows are thrown open to let the old year out.

On New Year's Day, children are given presents – cash in red envelopes to bring luck. Then it's time to visit the neighbours and wish them well for the New Year. The New Year festivities end 15 days later with the Lantern Festival, with traditional folk dancing and parades.