Origin of Chinese New Year and Spring Festival

This year we say goodbye to the Year of the Snake and welcome in the Year of the Horse for Chinese New Year 4712.

But how did it all start 4712 years ago?

Nowadays, we are used to calling the Chinese Spring Festival “Chinese New Year”, but originally,  Spring Festival was quite different from the New Year of the Chinese lunar calendar.

Spring Festival

So what is the origin of the Chinese New Year? Here’s the story according to ancient Chinese folklore.

A monster called “year”

In ancient times, there was a type of vicious beast called “year”. On every 30th day of the 12th lunar month, the beast would come to the village and go door to door, eating people , killing livestock, and destroying crops.

fire crackers spring festival chinese new year

Children lighting fire crackers to bring about a safe new year.

One one such night, Year arrived at a particular village. It just so happens that two young shepherds were in the middle of a bullwhip competition. Year was terrified by the sudden loud cracking in the air and ran away from the village.

The beast ended up in another village and the first thing he saw was a large red coat being hung out to dry on the front yard. Year didn’t know what that big red thing was, and again ran away in fear.

At the third village he came to, Year peaked into one of the homes and saw that everything inside was ablaze with lamp light. Blinded and dizzy from the bright light, Year had no choice but to turn tail and run again.

The people figured out that Year was weak against loud noises, the color red, and bright lights. They developed many ways to utilize these factors against Year.  And so came the Chinese tradition of celebrating the new year with fire crackers, wearing red cloths and decorating the house with red and gold everywhere.

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The word “year”

The origin of Chinese New Year comes from the historic meaning of the word “year”. In ancient Chinese texts, the word “year” had a 禾 radical that was linked to the meaning of weather and abundant harvests. It made sense for “year” to have a crop radical as generally crops ripen once a year. Later, the word “year” was incorporated to have a meaning of “age”.

Even in ancient times, the celebration of a new year had been well incorporated into the Chinese culture. But back then it wasn’t called Spring Festival as it is today. That’s because the Spring holiday back then refers to a separate date or even the whole season of spring.

It’s said that it wasn’t until after the cultural revolution that the New Year of the Chinese lunar calendar was officially named the Spring Festival. At the time, China was switching over to the western or solar calendar we all observe today. In order to differentiate the New Years celebration between the two calendars, the Lunar New Year became officially known as “Spring Festival”.

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