Spring Festival is upon us and families around the country are finishing their preparations to welcome the Lunar New Year. We’ve already told you about things you can expect and phrases which may come in handy during the festival. By now, you may be able to communicate with a few native niceties and know not to waste your time lining up at any tourist attractions. As we sit on the cusp of the Year of the Ox, let us dig deeper into the traditions and explain what each day during CNY stands for and introduce intriguing customs that even some locals may never have heard about.
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The first day of Spring Festival is called ‘Yuan Ri’ (元日), meaning the beginning of the year. On this day, people light fireworks or crackers from midnight to welcome the gods from the heaven. Legend has it that at this time each year, a monster called ‘Nian’ (年) would harass the villagers. Later, villagers learned the weakness of the monster (the color red and the sound of explosions) so they started to light fireworks and erect spring couplets. This is why Chinese people refer to celebrating Chinese New Year as ‘Guonian’ (过年), which originally meant conquering the beast.
In some places, the first day of CNY is also known as the ‘Birthday of the Broom.’ As a result, it is considered bad luck to use a broom and clean up the house. Ancient people believed that good luck would be ‘swept away’ on this day, which may explain the tradition of spring-cleaning on New Year’s Eve.
Moreover, the first day is dubbed the ‘Day of the Roosters’ because Nüwa, the mother goddess of Chinese mythology, created roosters on her first day of creating the world. People in some regions of China will celebrate this day by putting up paintings of roosters.
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The second day of Spring Festival was the day when married daughters visited their birth parents. The tradition, in some places, is named ‘Shi Ri Zhou’ (having lunch), indicating that daughters must return to their husbands’ houses before dinner. Now, as feminist awareness has awakened, the custom has been dropped in most regions.
In the northern part of China, the second day is also the day to worship the God of Wealth. Northerners, on this day, will go to the temple of the God of the Wealth and pray for good fortune in the coming year.
Nüwa is said to have created dogs on the second day, so this day is also referred to as the ‘Day of the Dogs.’
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The third day of Spring Festival is known as the ‘Day of Red Dog.’ Red Dog is the God of Wrath in Chinese mythology. It is said that one can easily run into quarrels on this day. As a result, people would avoid going out and instead, go to sleep early.
According to the legend, the third day of the Spring Festival is the wedding day of the mouse, so people in the past would throw rice or cake at the corners of their floor for the mice to consume.
The third day is when Nüwa created pigs. To celebrate the ‘Day of the Pigs,’ farmers would spare the lives of the pigs they raised in the hope that the pigs would grow larger in the future.
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The fourth day of Spring Festival is when sheep were created by Nüwa. Like the pigs, sheep farmers would keep their sheep alive on this day so they could fetch a better price in the future.
On this day, people would eat ‘Zhe Luo,’ the banquet leftovers from previous days. Another custom practiced on this day was ‘Reng Qiong,’ that is to gather around the garbage collected since the first day of CNY; people in the past believed it would bring bad luck to dump waste during the first five days of Spring Festival.
In the South, people would prepare to welcome the birthday of the God of Wealth, which falls on the fifth day of Spring Festival.
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The most exciting activity on the fifth day of Lunar New Year is the celebration of the God of Wealth. Like the first day of CNY, people would set off firecrackers from midnight to catch the attention of the deity (of course, it is a different story if the fireworks and firecrackers are now banned from your city). On this day, people would also have jiaozi dumplings, which not only look like the gold ingots (yuanbao), but also have the same pronunciation as“交子” (jiaozi), the currency used during the Song Dynasty.
This day is also referred to as ‘Breaking Five’ because a great number of taboos which are followed during the first four days can be broken after this day.
Nüwa is said to have created cows on the fifth day, so this day is also referred to as the ‘Day of the Cows.’
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The sixth day is dubbed as the ‘Day of Song Qiong.’ On this day, people could take out the garbage that had accumulated from the taboo. In the past, this day was also the day for farmers to start spring ploughing.
Nüwa is said to have created horses on the sixth day, so this day is also referred to as the ‘Day of the Horses.’
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Nüwa, the mother goddess of Chinese mythology, finally created human beings on the seventh day of Spring Festival. So, this day is considered the birthday of all humans and called ‘Ren Ri’ (the Day of the Humans). To celebrate, people would wear rensheng (人胜), a head ornament made of colorful ribbons and drink ‘seven vegetable soup’ (七菜羹). Both customs are today still kept in some rural areas.
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The eighth day is considered as the birthday of grain, when farmers would predict the yield for the coming year. Also, on this day, they would not eat grain products as a sign of cherishing food.
It is said that the night of the eighth day has the most stars in the sky for the whole year, so this day is called ‘Shunxing Festival’ (festival of constellation). After the night falls, people would light candles (at least nine) to honor the stars. The older members of the family would also take the opportunity to teach the little ones about horoscopes.
Another custom on the eighth day is to free captive animals like birds or fish.
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The ninth day of the Chinese New Year is the birthday of Jade Emperor of the heaven in the Taoist Pantheon. People on that day would go to the nearest Taoist temple to thank the Jade Emperor for the blessings of the last year and pray for the coming year. The tradition, which is called ‘Bai Tian Gong’ (worshipping the emperor of the heaven), is still applied in Fujian and Taiwan.
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The tenth day of the Spring Festival is said to be the birthday of stones because the word ‘石’ (stones) is identical in sound to ‘十’ (10). On Stone Day, people were not allowed to deploy stone-made farming tools as it would affect the yield of the crops.
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The fifteenth day of the Lunar New Year, as you may already know, is the Lantern Festival or ‘Yuan Xiao Festival’ (元宵节) when families are supposed to get together to eat tangyuan, which represents union. In addition to the snacks, activities such as the riddle guessing game and lion dances will also be held to mark the end of the whole Spring Festival.
This article was originally published in February of 2018. It has been updated and republished on February 1, 2021.
[Cover image by Pixabay]
This article was originally published by our sister magazine Urban Family Shanghai. For more articles like this, visit the Urban Family website, or follow the Urban Family WeChat account (ID: urbanfamilyshanghai).