Natural Selections

2015: Chinese New Year of the Sheep

By Peng Kate Gao

If I have to name one day of an entire year that I wish dearly to be with my family-on-the-other-side-of-the-planet, it’s the Chinese New Year. Also called Spring Festival, it is the most cherished and celebrated holiday in China, as families reunite to ring out the old year and celebrate the coming new year. According to the Chinese Animal Zodiac, every year is associated with one of twelve animals: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig. On February 19, 2015 we say farewell to a previous year of the Horse, and welcome the beginning of a year of the Sheep.

The myth of Chinese New Year

The Chinese New Year celebration has a long history, dating back over 4,000 years. According to ancient legends, it began with a mythical beast called Nian. Nian was a ferocious monster with a gigantic horn and sharp teeth. It lived in the deep sea all year long, but once every year it would crawl out of the water to wreak havoc on villages. Every year on this day, villagers, young and old, would flee deep into the mountains to hide from Nian’s attack.

One year, while the villagers had started their rush to the mountains, an old beggar came through the neighborhood. An elderly grandmother gave him food, and warned him to hide so as not to be harmed by Nian. The beggar laughed and said that he could chase Nian away. Surprised and hesitant, the old woman left on her own.

At midnight, Nian arrived in the village. It was pitch black everywhere, except for the old woman’s house, which shone brightly with candle and lantern light. The monster bounded towards the house, but stopped short, trembling at the sight of a piece of bright red paper on the door. Suddenly, firecrackers began to explode. Terrified, Nian ran away from the village.

When the villagers returned the following day, they were surprised to find that everything was safe and sound. The old woman told the story of the beggar. Noticing the red paper on the door and the remnants of candles, lanterns, and firecrackers, the villagers suddenly realized that Nian feared the color red, bright light, and loud noises. Rejoicing in relief and excitement, they celebrated. Wearing new hats and clothes, they visited family and friends, and congratulated each other on the prospect of a peaceful year ahead.

Since then, every year on the day that Nian would appear, families adorn their doors with red paper, set off firecrackers, and light candles and lanterns in their homes. The next morning, which marks the start of a new year, people visit their relatives and friends, with festivities lasting for 15 days. This tradition of gratitude and hope has continued till today.

Traditional Chinese New Year decorations

To celebrate the Chinese New Year, families decorate their homes with a variety of red items, as red signifies luck and good fortune in Chinese culture. The most popular ones include lanterns, Spring Festival couplets and paper cutouts.

Red lanterns are usually hung around the house, especially at the front door, where families often put up a pair of large ones. These lanterns burn throughout the night, protecting the family from the evil monster Nian.

Spring Festival couplets are pairs of calligraphic writings of ancient Chinese poems on a background of red paper. Expressing sentiments about life’s renewal, the arrival of spring, and wishes for a prosperous year ahead, they’re pasted on both sides of the main door. These Spring Festival couplets originate from ancient “peach wood charms,” which are carved or painted charms depicting protective door gods. During the Five Dynasty Period (897-979 AD), Emperor Meng Chang ordered his counselor to engrave an inspirational couplet on a pair of peach wood slats to hang on the door of his living room, starting a custom that gradually evolved into today’s Spring Festival couplets.

Besides Spring Festival couplets, it is also common for people to make red paper cutouts and paste them on windows. It’s popular to display calligraphic writings of Chinese characters for “spring” or “blessing.” These are sometimes hung upside down, since in Chinese, the word “invert” is a homonym for “arrive,” thus signifying the arrival of spring or blessing to the household.

Traditional Chinese New Year cuisine

The most important meal during the celebration is the New Year’s Eve dinner, when families get together for a sumptuous banquet. The cuisine varies in different parts of China. In the north, it is customary to eat dumplings (jiao zi), which bear the shape of ancient Chinese currency gold ingots (yuan bao), thus signifying fortune. In southern China, people usually eat New Year’s cake made of glutinous rice flour (nian gao), since it is a homophone for “higher and higher every year” in Chinese.

Traditional activities of a Chinese New Year

After New Year’s Eve dinner, family members typically stay up late together and chat happily until midnight (shou sui), waiting for the first bell ring of the New Year. There are also many New Year’s Eve TV programs featuring singing and dancing, entertaining millions of families in China and around the world.

On the first day of the New Year, it is customary for younger generations to visit the elders, wishing them health and longevity. Children and teenagers are given “lucky money” (ya sui qian) packed in red envelops by their parents and grandparents. These are believed to bring good luck and to ward off evil spirits. People also visit relatives and friends during the New Year celebration period. For these visits snacks are often served; the most popular ones include sunflower seeds, peanuts, tangerines and candy.

Year of the Sheep

According to the Chinese Animal Zodiac, 2015 is a year of the Sheep. In Chinese folk tales, the story of the Sheep is similar to that of Prometheus in Greek mythology. Prometheus brought fire to mankind, while the sacred Sheep brought seeds of corn and rice and taught mankind the basics of farming. Beloved by the people, the Sheep made its way into the Chinese Animal Zodiac, symbolizing beauty, calm, sensitivity and creativity. It is believed that people born in a particular year possess characteristics of the animal zodiac associated with that year. Michelangelo, Mark Twain, and Thomas Edison were all born in year of the Sheep.

Chinese New Year greetings

If you want to wish colleagues or friends a happy Chinese New Year during the New Year period (Feb 19-Mar 6, 2015), try greeting them in authentic Chinese, and you will likely spark a big smile on their faces:

Guo nian hao: Happy New Year.

Wan shi ru yi: Wish you every happiness and prosperity.

Gong xi fa cai: Wish you to make great fortune.

He jia huan le: Wish happiness for your whole family.

The year of the Sheep is right around the corner, so wan shi ru yi everyone!