According to Chinese legend, ancient people were once terrorized by a beast called the Nian -- a ferocious, man-eating monster. The beast came out every 12 months to prey on humans, until an old man tricked it into disappearing. The brute's departure was a cause for celebration, and became the Chinese New Year.
The Chinese New Year is celebrated on the second New Moon after the Winter Solstice, which usually falls somewhere between January 21 and February 20. In 2014, we'll begin celebrating Chinese Year of the Wood Horse on January 31.
If you live in a city that has a Chinatown, you've no doubt seen the red and gold decorations, fireworks and parades. It was believed that the Nian was sensitive to loud noise and the color red, so both are used liberally to commemorate the occasion. Gold, not surprisingly, symbolizes wealth, and is said to bring prosperity in the New Year.
Each New Year is ruled by an animal in the Chinese zodiac: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Pig, in that order. If you're wondering how the order came to be, there's a legend behind that, too. Buddha invited all of the animals to help him celebrate the Chinese New Year, and announced that each year would be represented by one of them. They had a race to determine who would go first. The Ox was in the lead, but the Rat jumped onto his back, jumped off at the last minute and won the big prize -- the first lunar year. The Pig, being the laziest of the bunch, came in last. People born in each year are said to carry the personality traits of that animal -- like the western zodiac signs relate to ruling planets.
On the days leading up to the New Year, Chinese families clean their homes, believing it will erase the previous year's bad luck and open their homes to the good. Chinese New Year's Eve is celebrated with a large family dinner containing fish and dumplings, the latter of which symbolize wealth because they are shape like gold nuggets. Read more about this cultural feast and find links to Chinese New Year recipes.
The Chinese New Year celebration itself lasts for 15 days. The first day is the big celebration, complete with firecrackers and parades. Children are given red envelopes containing money. Markets also open, and people hang paper signs on doors welcoming luck, happiness and prosperity. The days following differ based on activities and foods eaten. For example, the second day is one in which married daughters visit their parents. On the seventh day, the Chinese eat yusheng, a tossed raw fish salad.
Chinese New Year celebrations aren't just limited to China. While Japan doesn't celebrate the holiday, other Asian countries do, including Vietnam, Korea, Mongolia and Nepal.
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