The Chinese New Year falls on the first day of the new moon of the first term of the twenty four terms or cycles. These cycles or terms are linked to solar cycles or dates of agricultural changes. Thus, the new year comes fifteen days after the beginning of the Spring cycle usually between January 21st and February 20th. Chinese New Year is also known as the Spring festival. Its origins are too old to trace.
Today the Chinese hang red lanterns and set off firecrackers to keep the trouble from coming back. It is a time when the Chinese people give thanks for the past year and wish each other good fortune in the coming year. Even though the climax of the New Year lasts only three days, the New Year season extends from the mid twelfth month of the previous year to the middle of the first month of the new year.
In the days before the New Year, families clean their homes from top to bottom. The house is swept clean to eliminate all the ill fortune that may have been in the family and to make way for the incoming good luck. Doors and windowpanes are painted red. The family hides brooms, knives and any sharp objects, believing that their use on New Year's Day will bring bad luck. Huge quantities of food are also cooked on the days before the New Year because it is also considered bad luck to cook on New Year's day.
The houses are decorated with flowers. A tree (Money Tree) is made of pinecones or Cyprus branches. On the tree are hung old coins, fruit, charms and paper flowers. The doors and windows are decorated with paper cut outs and scrolls that call for longevity, wealth, happiness and good marriages with many children. In some houses, paintings are hung with the same themes. Food offerings are made at the altars of the ancestors.
Fifteen days after New Year's Day or the day of the first full moon, the New Year's season comes to end with the Feast of Lanterns. The festival of the lanterns is an ancient tradition to usher in the increasing light and warmth of the sun after the winter's cold. There are many customs surrounding the lantern festival one being the eating of taro under the lantern. The taro is boiled until soft and at midnight the family gathers under the lantern and the taro is eaten. It is believed that by eating the taro, one would be able to see the future. In Shanghai the lantern festival is known as Yuanxiao. Many of the lanterns are made in rabbit shapes for the children and the people enjoy eating round sweet dumplings (Yuanxiao). Another tradition is the pasting of riddles (Cai Dang Mi) on the sides of the lanterns. The lanterns are then hung outside or inside the house, those who answer the riddles are rewarded. On this day a special food (Tang Yuan) is eaten symbolizing family unity.
On this day there is a huge parade, at its head is an enormous Golden dragon symbolizing strength and goodness. The dragon can be more than a hundred feet long and is constructed of a bamboo frame covered with silk, velvet or paper. Men and boys who prance beneath the dragon and dance along the parade route carry it. There are stilt dancers and the Golden lion dancers. The Golden Lion is an important symbol to the Chinese people. Dating from the third century, the Golden Lion dance is performed at all public and religious functions and is the symbol of protection and good luck.