What is the Chinese Spring Festival?

The Chinese Spring Festival is the most important Chinese holiday. This celebratory event is equivalent to both Christmas and New Year’s wrapped together and is recognized by a quarter of the world’s population. The Spring Festival originally marked the end of winter and the coming of spring. It begins on the first day of the first month of the Chinese calendar year and ends on the 15th day of the first month with the Lantern Festival.

According to the Chinese calendar, this is the year 4711. That’s because the Chinese are thought to have started their calendar in the 14th century BC, when the Shang Dynasty was in power, and based it on the lunar calendar. Although the Chinese still use the Chinese calendar for their festivals, they use the Gregorian calendar for their day-to-day activities.

The start of the Chinese New Year is on a different date from year to year. That’s because it’s based on the lunar, rather than the solar calendar. What’s the difference? The solar calendar, also known as the Gregorian calendar, is based on the earth taking 365 days a year (366 days in a leap year) to revolve around the sun. In contrast, the lunar New Year is based on the phases of the moon, which have a shorter cycle than the sun. Therefore, the Chinese New Year does not occur on the same day every year but, instead, falls somewhere between January 21st and February 20th.

The Gregorian calendar was brought to China by Jesuit missionaries in 1582. However, it was not widely used in China until approximately 1912 when it became the official calendar of China. In 1949 China, under the leadership of Mao Zedong, also recognized the Gregorian calendar and forbade the celebration of the traditional Chinese New Year. Mao died in 1976 and, twenty years later, China re-instituted the Spring Festival as a vacation period, giving people the opportunity to travel to their home towns and celebrate the Chinese New Year with their families. Since China was, at that time, primarily an agrarian based society, this worked well. It was winter and most farmers were idle since they couldn’t plant crops during this time. The Spring Festival, a transition between winter and spring, allowed a primarily agrarian society to use this idle time and spend it with family and friends.

Spending time with one’s family is considered culturally essential by a great many Chinese. In fact, during the Spring Festival most Chinese tend to travel to their home cities and villages before the official start of the Festival, just as we tend to start our Christmas season before Christmas day. In response, businesses will start shutting down the week before the official start of the Spring Festival and return to a normal work schedule sometime after the Lantern Festival. During the Spring Festival business in China is virtually at a standstill.

I witnessed my first Spring Festival several years ago when I was in Beijing. The hotel I was staying at had virtually emptied as had the large parking lot which usually overflowed with cars trying to find a piece of concrete on which to park their car. A city of 20 million people (the 2010 government survey showed a population of 19,612,368) looked virtually deserted. Everywhere I looked there were decorations – all in red. Moreover, it almost sounded like Beirut outside. For almost one straight day I could hear firecrackers going off all around the hotel. It wasn’t till I read a book by May-lee Chai and Winberg Chai, titled China A to Z, that I understood the significance of why Chinese love the color red for festivals and also set off firecrackers at these events. What they explained was that, going back to an ancient Chinese legend, a monster called the Nian appeared in villages at the end of every year and attacked people and their livestock. Finally, the Chinese came to discover that the Nian had three weaknesses: it was terrified of loud noises, hated sunlight, and despised the color red. Thus the ancient Chinese would set off firecrackers to scare away the Nian monster, build bonfires at night to make it as bright as day, and display as red as much as possible. Eventually, through the years, the word nian came to mean “year,” and the customs of setting off firecrackers, using red, and lighting bonfires signified the end of the year.

Presents are also given to children on the first day of the Spring Festival, but not in the manner most Westerners envision. Instead, on the morning of the Spring Festival, parents will give gifts to their children in the form of red paper envelopes containing money.

Also, just as we would have Christmas dinner, so too do the Chinese have what is termed a Reunion Dinner. At this dinner, held the day before the official start of the Spring Festival, all family members, near and far, celebrate together. This custom is called “surrounding the hearth” as it was originally held around the family hearth. If anyone is unable to attend, a place is still set for them at the table.

But China is evolving. People are increasingly preferring to eat in restaurants, rather than have the Reunion Dinner at home. In addition, younger people are showing a reluctance to travel and celebrate the New Year with their families. If they do travel, it’s likely to be to another city in China where they can relax and enjoy the city as a tourist. More affluent Chinese will travel internationally with their families. Favorite destinations include tropical locations such as the Seychelles and Hawaii, as well as Paris, London, Sydney, and other principal global cities.

Young people in China who prefer not to travel will pretty much do what young people do in the United States – spend time with their friends, be on the internet, go to movies and shopping malls, and catch up on their sleep.

Alan Refkin

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