Chinese New Year for Kids

Did you know there is one more amazing celebration around this time of year?  It’s called the Chinese New Year – or in other countries the Spring Festival or Lunar New Year.  The celebration is based on the rotation of the sun and moon, and begins on the first new moon that appears between January 21 and February 20, so that means the date changes every year.  In 2023, this festival will be celebrated on January 22.

This festival is truly amazing, with lots of history and symbolism.  There are moonlight monsters, delicious dumplings, and shiny paper pouches filled with money.  So come along with me as we learn more about the Chinese New Year in 2023, the year of the rabbit.  

First, you may be wondering: what is the year of the rabbit?  Well, the Chinese use 12 different animals to mark different years.  It’s called the Chinese Zodiac and their zodiac animals are: the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig.  In 2023, it is the year of the rabbit.  A rabbit is very fertile, so it has lots of family members and loves to cuddle with its rabbit family.  Therefore, this year will be a year of homecoming, of reconnecting with family and friends, as well as for fresh starts and new beginnings.  That sounds good to me!

The Chinese New Year is celebrated in many places around the world, not only China.  It is also celebrated in Tibet, Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and other places.  And as people move around the world, they take their customs with them.  Now Asian populations in the US, Canada, Europe, Australia, Peru, New Zealand, and South Africa enjoy this amazing festival.  Just as Santa Claus was brought to the US by folks in Europe, Chinese customs have traveled the world with people from Asia!  So, let’s learn more!

The Chinese New Year is held to celebrate the coming of Spring, when the sun starts its new cycle and the days become longer.  People get ready for this festival by cleaning and sweeping their homes – which symbolizes getting rid of old evils and welcoming new luck.  They need to make sure to put away their brooms and dustpans before New Year’s Day, though, or it is believed they will sweep away their newly-arrived good luck!  Next, they hang red paper pictures and poems on their windows and doors with themes like wealth, happiness, and good luck.  They may hand out coins on red strings or in red envelopes.  They may even put a fresh coat of red paint on their windows and doors.  But why red?  

Well, red is believed to be the color of joy – a lot like our Valentine’s Day showing red roses, red hearts on cards, and blushing red cheeks on little cupids.  It is also said to symbolizes truth, virtue, and sincerity. In Chinese opera, if a character has a painted red face, it generally means the person is holy, loyal, or a great emperor. Also in China, the sound of the word “red” is similar to the word “prosperous.”  So, red is a very special color in Asian cultures.

Plus, there are some neat legends regarding the color red and a monster named Sui – or Nian. One legend states that once there was an elderly couple who had a sweet son.  They were scared that the monster Sui would come to their house on New Year’s Eve to scare their child, so they tried to keep the boy awake by rattling copper coins.  The boy soon tired and fell asleep.  To protect their son from Sui while he slept, the parents put the copper coins in a red envelope under his pillow.  Suddenly, the doors and windows blew open and Sui appeared.  Sui reached out to touch the boy’s head, but the bright coins inside the envelope lit up and scared Sui away.  

Another legend states that the monster Sui used to roam a village in China thousands of years ago and scare all the people.  Many brave warriors tried to kill Sui but could not.  Finally, a young orphan boy with a golden sword stepped forward and said he would battle Sui.  He fought bravely and killed the monster.  The villagers were so happy that they gave him coins in red bags. 

A third legend states that there once was a mythical beast called Nian who lived under the mountains or the seas and would roam around villages in the middle of the night.[21] One night, all the villagers decided to leave their homes and hide from the beast – all except for one man.  That night, the man set up red paper lanterns around the village and lit firecrackers.  When the villagers returned the next day, their village had not been destroyed by Nian, so they thought that Nian must be afraid of loud noises and the color red.  Every year thereafter, people wore red clothes during the Chinese New Year, lit fireworks, banged drums, hung red lanterns, and put red on their windows and doors – and Nian never returned.  And maybe this is why we see colorful dragons in Chinese parades – maybe it is the mythical creature Sui or Nian and all the loud music is played to scare him away!  I think those are some pretty neat traditions and legends!

Besides cleaning house, lighting fireworks, and putting coins in red envelopes, folks also like to make delicious dumplings.  And why dumplings?  Well, they look like round coins, which signify wealth and prosperity – plus they are delicious!  Just like in other countries on New Year’s eve where people eat round fruit, symbolizing coins and wealth, Asian families eat round dumplings!  Plus, in the olden days, they sometimes put a coin inside a dumpling and whoever found it was said to have good luck in the new year.  Today, they like to put other things in their dumplings, such as candy for sweet days, dates for a flourishing year, or a piece of nian gao, a rice cake, for a rich life.  

And you may also see pretty red pictures or symbols, called Fu characters, in a diamond shape hung upside down on the outside of stores and homes.  We now know the reason for the color red, but why hang them upside down?  Well, the word for “upside down” in Chinese sounds very similar to the word for “arrive” – so they believe these upside pictures will bring good luck, wealth, and happiness to their door.  But for Cantonese people, the word upside down sounds similar to “pour away.”  They think that if you hang something upside down, you will pour away your good luck – so they hang things right side up!  Gosh, I wouldn’t know HOW to hang my pictures on Chinese New Year – would you?

There are even more customs, like when to get your hair cut on Chinese New Year.  If they want to have a haircut for the holiday, they need to do it before New Year’s Day or it is considered bad luck.  Why?  Well, in China, the word for “hair” sounds like the word “prosperity”, so they certainly don’t want to cut off any hair – or wealth – on New Year’s Day!  

In homes that follow Buddhism or Taoism, they clean their alters and statues, then burn the year’s paper decorations a week before New Year’s.  Why?  This is thought to send the year’s good luck up to heaven.  They then put up new decorations.  They may also burn a picture of Zao Jun, the Kitchen God, who is said to record all the family’s deeds during the year.  It is hoped that by burning his picture, he will take a record of the family’s deeds to the god known as the Jade Emperor.  They may even put out sweets and candies as a little bribe to the Kitchen God so he will only report the good things to the Jade Emperor.  This is like American homes where children put out cookies and milk in hopes that Santa will be happy and leave presents!  We do this because we know he has a naughty and nice list!  

And before the big feast on New Year’s Eve, a prayer of thanksgiving is said for the past year, as well as prayers sent up for ancestors.  This is very similar to Thanksgiving in America.  A big meal is eaten, then niangao, or New Year’s Cake, is served and pieces of it are also sent to friends and family.  Delicious dumplings are eaten at midnight to bring wealth and good luck in the new year.

This all sounds amazing!  But there’s more!  New Year’s celebrations don’t just last for 1 day – they may go on for 15 days with different events on different days, like eating special foods, lighting fireworks, giving gifts, or making offerings to the gods.  On the 15th day in China and Malaysia, it is a day for single ladies to write their name and number on mandarin oranges and throw them into a lake or river.  Men will pick these fruits out of the water and eat them. The taste of the orange will indicate whether a possible love connection will be sweet or sour.  

So, what do you think of all these amazing legends, foods, and customs?  Is there one you would like to try, like handing out coins in red envelopes, eating dumplings, or throwing oranges in a river?  Maybe you would like to research the animals in the Chinese Zodiac to find your Chinese animal based on your date of birth.  What does that animal say about your future?  Does it differ from your astrological sign?  Maybe your parents can help you with this research – it would be a fun family project to learn everyone’s Zodiac sign!

I’d like to hear about your Zodiac sign and what you think it might mean about you. Or if you celebrate Chinese New Year, use the form link in the notes to tell me your favorite tradition.

Whatever your Zodiac animal, feast, or decorations this Chinese New Year, from my house to yours, I wish you a year ahead filled with health, happiness, and prosperity!

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About Bedtime History

Bedtime History is a series of educational, relaxing stories for kids and families. Learn about inspirational characters such as Jackie Robinson, Sacajawea, Neil Armstrong, and Maya Angelou. Other topics include space exploration, current events, and great feats of engineering such as The Transcontinental Railroad.