Introduction

Though the Christmas season is already in the rearview mirror, for millions of people around the world, the "most wonderful time of the year" is just beginning. Chinese New Year (or more correctly, Lunar New Year since the holiday is celebrated in numerous countries in Asia and beyond) is a celebration of fresh starts, new beginnings, and the hope that the coming year will bring happiness and prosperity. This post will guide you through Chinese New Year's cultural significance, cherished traditions, and a list of suggested activities to make your Chinese student feel at home during this important holiday.

When Is It?

The exact date of Chinese New Year changes from year to year and is calculated according the traditional Chinese lunar calendar, falling sometime between January 21st and February 20th each year. For 2019, Chinese New Year will take place on February 5th. Like Christmas, however, Chinese New Year festivities aren't confined to the day itself, but stretch out over several weeks both before and after the holiday. While to Western minds, these dates fall squarely in the winter season, Chinese New Year is also known as the Spring Festival, since according to traditional Chinese calendars, the new year marks the end of winter's coldest period and signals the slow warming of temperatures. On a more macro level, time is divided into twelve-year cycles with each year corresponding to one of the animals of the Chinese zodiac: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig. The year roughly corresponding to 2018 was the Year of the Dog and 2019 will be rung in as the Year of the Pig.

Cultural Significance

To say that Chinese New Year is a big deal to the communities who celebrate it would be an understatement. For celebrants in Asia and beyond, the Spring Festival is on par with Christmas in terms of the effusive amount of holiday cheer it generates. In China, the holiday season is marked by an almost total cessation of business activities as the vast majority of people return to their hometown to spend time with their relatives. This is no easy feat in a country where a huge proportion of the population works hundreds of miles from their birthplace and the annual homeward-bound pilgrimage of China's homesick masses is figured to be the largest human migration on earth. As with New Year's celebrations in Western countries, the holiday focuses around themes of leaving behind the troubles and misfortunes of the previous year and opening oneself up to good fortune and new opportunities in the year to come. Traditionally, the worship of ancestors and specific deities was a major feature of Chinese New Year festivities, but celebrations have become somewhat secularized in recent decades with a  decreased emphasis on the spiritual aspect of the holiday.

2 The Hangzhou train station during the Spring Festival.

Customs and Traditions

As with Christmas, traditions vary considerably across China and beyond. Someone in Beijing might have a different set of customs and holiday routines from someone in Hong Kong, but there are several customs that are more or less universal. Apart from being instructive, the following list is meant to provide you with some inspiration as fun activities you can do with your Chinese exchange student during the holiday season.

-Wear Red: In Chinese culture, red is viewed as an auspicious color which scares off demons and attracts good fortune. If you have red articles of clothing, put them on during your celebrations!

-Decorate Your House: It just doesn't feel like Chinese New Year if your home isn't festooned with brightly colored paper. Common decorations include red paper lanterns, diamond shaped posters with the Chinese character fu (福) written on it, and red paper banners with traditional "new year couplets" written on them. The latter two are usually placed on and beside the entrance to the family home; your student can help you with exact placement and the composition of the couplets. If you live in a city with a Chinatown or other large Chinese community, you will almost certainly be able to find the necessary nianhuo (Chinese New Year decorations) in shops. If not, red construction paper is a good alternative.

3 Typical example of Chinese New Year door decorations.

-Light Firecrackers: Firecrackers are believed to scare off malevolent spirits and are just plain fun. Please be sure to check your local regulations regarding fireworks before lighting them off in your own community.

-Red Envelopes: Known as hongbao in Chinese, red envelopes filled with cash are commonly given to younger family members by older family members. This cash can then be used as pocket money or (more probably) be swiftly seized by frugal parents and put into the child's savings account, much to the dismay of the recipient.  If you choose to participate in this custom, there is no need to spend a lot of money. A token few dollars is enough and your student will likely appreciate the gesture regardless of the amount. Once again, purpose-designed red envelopes can be found in any store selling Chinese New Year goods, but a standard red mailing envelope will work in a pinch.

4 Giving red envelopes with money inside is a common Chinese New Year tradition

-Feast with Family: Being together with family members is a major part of the Chinese New Year experience. While your host students will be grateful for your hospitality, it is possible that they may also be slightly homesick during this special time of year. One surefire way to alleviate the holiday blues is to enjoy a big meal together as they would back home. Chinese boiled dumplings (jiaozi) are a food that is traditionally enjoyed during the Spring Festival and may be filled with pork, shrimp, vegetables, mushrooms, or a variety of other fillings. If you live near a Chinese supermarket, you'll easily be able to find the makings for authentic Chinese dumplings. Failing that, most supermarkets will have some form of frozen Chinese-style dumplings that are easy to prepare. If you're feeling extra ambitious, you can try your hand at making dumplings from scratch and have your student show you the proper way to wrap them!

5 Boiled dumplings are a standard Chinese New Year treat.

In addition, Alpha Exchange will be organizing Chinese New Year dinners for most groups at a local a Chinese restaurant where students and parents will have the opportunity to gather and celebrate together.

Take Away

For hundreds of millions of people around the world, the Lunar New Year is a very special time of year. The worries and setbacks of the old year are forgotten as families come together to look toward a brighter future. Even if you've never celebrated the Chinese New Year before, hosting a student during the Spring Festival is a great way to learn about more about their culture and traditions. Your student and their parents will undoubtedly appreciate any effort you make to help them feel at home and to share in their holiday cheer.


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