The occasion is also observed in Hong Kong, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia and the Philippines as well as in Chinese communities in major cities across the world, not least in London’s West End, the biggest gathering of revellers outside of Asia (when the British capital is not mired in lockdown, that is).
A lunar year charts 12 complete cycles of the moon and lasts approximately 354 days, as opposed to our western solar year, which lasts 365 days in accordance with the earth’s passage around the sun.
Each lunar year is assigned a spirit animal from the Chinese zodiac, with 2021 marking the Year of the Ox.
“It’s really a time for new beginnings, and family gathering,” Nancy Yao Maasbach, president of New York City’s Museum of Chinese in America, tells Oprah Magazine, defining the event’s significance as a moment to reflect on “fortune, happiness, and health”.
Here are five facts you might now know about this annual celebration.
Fireworks are lit to banish monsters
The Lunar New Year is a season loaded with symbolism.
Red paper lanterns and banners bearing poetic inscriptions are hung in the home because the colour is regarded as a portent of good luck, while children are customarily gifted small amounts of money in envelopes of the same shade, a source of excitement and hilarity at family gatherings.
Householders also carry out a thorough spring clean prior to Lunar New Year’s Eve to rid their homes of the past year’s accumulated dust and grime with a view to starting afresh.
Observers are advised to pay back their debts for the same reason but avoid tempting fate by cutting their hair or wearing white or black clothing, both of which are associated with mourning.
The season’s superstitions also include firework displays held to banish the nian, a mythical half-lion, half-dragon beast. According to folklore, the monster, believed to prey on children, is frightened away by the noise and smoke from exploding rockets, flares and sparklers.
The nian dance troupes who parade through town centres banging gongs and drums serve the same purpose, banishing a force of evil from the land.
It’s (usually) the world’s largest annual human migration
The Spring Festival is, ordinarily, one of the busiest times of the year anywhere in the world as people return home en masse to be with their families, much like Christmas or Thanksgiving in the West.
The travel rush over the break is known as “Chunyun”, with as many as 3 billion trips typically made, although it was much reduced in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic, which originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan before spreading throughout the world.
You can hire a date
As with all big family reunions, the pressure to impress is immense and the chance of glowering parental disapproval high.
In a society of traditional expectations and nuclear families, singletons often dread the inevitable interrogation about their love lives over the dinner table.
But there is a novel solution.
Chinese dating websites commonly offer fake dates for hire for between 500 and 6,000 Chinese renminbi (£57-£683), the perfect way to sidestep overbearing parents and nagging.
The Jade Emperor’s Great Race determined the Chinese zodiac
According to Chinese mythology, the zodiac was created by the Jade Emperor, who invited the animals to cross the river and come to him on his birthday to discuss the formulation of the calendar, with the promise that the first 12 to arrive would be honoured with a place on the wheel.
The cat and rat agreed a pact to go together, taking a lift on the back of a lumbering ox. The rat pushed the cat into the water, leapt off the ox and won the Great Race. This is why the cat does not appear and is, reportedly, why cats have resented rodents ever since.
The ox arrived second, followed by the tiger and a rabbit, hopping across on a log, the beast’s passage eased thanks to a gust of wind blown by a dragon, who secured fifth place as compensation for this act of generosity.
A snake startled a horse to beat it into sixth before a goat, monkey and rooster arrived by raft. The penultimate arrival was the dog, who should have been a natural swimmer but spent too long bathing in the cool water.
The pig came last, arriving late as a result of his natural slothfulness, having stopped to gorge himself and rest.
2021 is the Year of the Ox
This year marks the Year of the Ox, the second animal in the Chinese zodiac.
The years on the Chinese calendar are divided into cycles of 12, meaning the ox will next be honoured in 2033, a dozen years’ time.
2020 was, appropriately, the Year of the Rat while 2022 will signify the Year of the Tiger, bronze medallist in the Great Race.
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