Chinese New Year Traditions

From the 5th February millions of people around the world will be seeing in Chinese New Year, or The Spring Festival, with their friends and family as the first of 15 days of celebrations begin. The festival is associated with many customs and traditions, so if you want to join in with the merriment, or simply get a better idea of what’s going on and why, check out this handy guide put together by the Bristol City Centre BID…

New Year’s Eve Dinner

The day before Chinese New Year families will gather for a reunion feast. Family is extremely important in Chinese culture and so everyone is expected to make it back for the reunion, and if they can’t a place will be laid at the table and the seat left empty in their absence. The dishes prepared are symbolic of prosperity, luck and good health in their name and look: spring rolls to welcome the new Spring beginnings; dumplings because the word in Chinese sounds similar to the word “exchange”, and so signifies the exchange of the old year for the new; fish because it’s pronounced the same as “surplus”, to wish all a surplus of wealth and health, and noodles, which are often called “longevity noodles” – the longer the noodle, the longer your life will be.

Fireworks and Firecrackers

In Chinese folklore a monster named Nian would come out every New Year’s Eve to terrorise villages, destroying homes and eating the residents. One year a visitor came to a village and refused to flee from Nian, instead he burned bamboo which created a loud crackling noise that scared the monster away. Burning bamboo was the precursor to firecrackers, which have now become an important tradition in celebrating the New Year, which is also known as Guo Nian in Chinese, translating to “overcome Nian” in English. Fireworks are set off at midnight on New Year’s Eve for the same reason, as the loud bangs and bright colours were believed to scare off Nian.

Red Pockets

Also known as red envelope’s or red packets, these gifts contain money and are given by older Chinese generations to the young – usually children or unmarried young adults. The “lucky money” as it is known can vary massively in amount, but is all intended to bring good fortune and prosperity for the year ahead. In Chinese mythology red pockets appear in a number of stories: they were placed under children’s pillows by parents as something to bribe Nian with when he came to wreak havoc and also the glinting coins were believed to scare away Sui, another monster who visited children on New Year’s Eve to pat them on the head and give them a fever.


Not the most festive of traditions, but an important one nonetheless. The intention is simple, in the days leading up to Chinese New Year households will be cleaned from top to bottom in order to sweep away any negativity or misfortune from the old year and make way for the new. Chinese people would then avoid cleaning their home’s in the first two days of the New Year, so as not to clean away any good fortune they have brought upon the household with their celebrations – although this one is not so strictly followed these days as a lot of mess can be made during the festivities!

Lion/Dragon Dances and Lantern Festival

Lions and dragons are both considered to be significant figures in Chinese culture, and so are used in performances to bring good luck and fortune. Dancers will perform to a backing of drums and cymbals, and are common at all sorts of celebrations such as weddings and parties. A prominent New Year event that features lion and dragon dances is the Lantern Festival – the 15th and final day of the New Year celebrations, where everyone descends on the streets to socialise and have fun. Riddles and wishes are written on the lanterns which are then sent up to the Gods as an offering.

The Colour Red

During the Chinese New Year – and often all year round in China and Chinese households – the colour red will feature heavily. The bright colour signifies happiness, wealth and good fortune in Chinese culture, whilst in a mythological sense it is believed to have warned off monsters and demons. Decorations, clothes, fireworks and decorations will all use the colour red where possible.