Over the last few years of living in China, I’ve learned some interesting things about Chinese New Year. Before moving here, my entire idea of Chinese New Year was a dragon dancing in the streets while lots of firecrackers go off around it. While this is certainly a part of the celebration, my experience with the traditions and spirit of the holiday have matured and expanded each year I have lived here. And I have come to realize there are many other fascinating aspects of life in China during the Chinese New Year holiday.

Shifting Dates

New Year’s Day in the Western calendar always falls on January 1st. Chinese New Year, though, follows the Lunar calendar and so the date can shift from year to year. In 2018 it was on February 16th, this year it is on February 5th. Next year, in 2020, it will occur in an entirely different month, on January 25th.

Make Your Plans Early

Chinese New Year is a time to return home and be with family, and most Chinese people do exactly that. With 1.6 billion people in China, Chinese New Year becomes the largest migration of people in the world each year. Purchasing a plane or train ticket for inter-China travel is not to be left to a last minute whim…because you probably won’t find any available. Even travel to destinations outside of China requires advance planning or you will pay a premium price. I know I have learned to make my own Chinese New Year travel plans as early as October of the year before.

Every City is Different

Celebrations in some cities are livelier than others. Here in Shenzhen, I live in a city that is only about 40 years old. Most of its residents are not from Shenzhen, and their families live in other parts of China. This leads to Shenzhen, a city of over 12 million people, essentially shutting down several days prior to Chinese New Year’s Eve, and staying quiet for about a week after the holiday.

Chinese New Year's Eve celebrations in Hong Kong

Chinese New Year’s Eve celebrations in Hong Kong

But take the ferry over to Hong Kong and you’ll see quite a party going on to celebrate Chinese New Year’s Eve, with buildings decked out in lights, a humongous fireworks display, and a fabulous parade with numerous dancing dragons (confirming a part of my early ideas), and lots of firecrackers. Similar to other Chinese cities, though, Hong Kong has a few quiet days after the New Year’s Eve celebration for families to get together.

Bringing Good Luck

Families observe numerous traditions during the Lunar New Year celebration. A thorough cleaning of the house is a big one in order to start the new year off with a clean slate. Many people also buy new clothes during this time. Red colored decor and items are quite prevalent. It’s common to see a lot of red undergarments and clothing sold in stores for those who were born under that year’s lunar sign to wear throughout their year. 2019 is the year of the pig, but I prefer to call it the year of the boar since it is my lunar year and boar just sounds better to me.

There is a superstition that one doesn’t have good luck during their lunar year, so maybe this year I will invest in some red clothing.

Giving Gifts

Many gifts are exchanged during the Lunar New Year celebration. I’ve recently learned that small oranges are a traditional holiday gift. I gave small oranges to my Chinese colleagues as a gift this year, and enjoyed the feeling of being a part of the holiday tradition, even as an expat. But my daughters’ have a favorite Chinese New Year traditional gift of their own: receiving a red envelope of money for a fortuitous year.

Chinese New Year Red Envelope

Lunar New Year Beyond China

Since Shenzhen feels like a ghost town, at least compared to its usual bustle, my family and I have traveled outside of China during Chinese New Year for the last three years. But China is not the only country that celebrates the Lunar New Year. The first year we celebrated in Vietnam, where it is called Tet. We enjoyed fun evenings sending lighted red lanterns out on the river with a wish for the coming year. Residents light lots of fireworks and everyone rushes to a temple to usher in the new year. Last year, we headed to the Maldives where my daughters spent two weeks scuba diving…quite a relaxing celebration. This year we plan to experience the Korean New Year in Seoul.

No matter where we’ve spent the actual holiday, we have always gotten into the holiday spirit with BASIS International School Shenzhen’s celebration which includes a hot pot dinner, entertainment (often provided by teachers and staff showing off their hidden talents), and a gift box of fruit, nuts, and cookies. We’ve enjoyed getting to be a part of two new year’s celebrations every year–I’m never one to turn down a festive party–and I feel confident these new celebrations will become a lasting part of our family’s yearly traditions, no matter where in the world we live.

Rachel Zanardi is the Director of Recruiting for BASIS International Schools

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