What is Spring Festival?

In 2019, Chinese New Year (called Spring Festival in Chinese) falls on February 5th, and lasts 15 days, finishing with the Lantern Festival on the 19th. What are the origins of this festival, and how can you best welcome in the Year of The Pig? 


The precise origins of Spring Festival are lost in the mists of time, but there are a few clues.  Legends that were around well before they were first documented in the Zhou Dynasty (1046BC-256BC) tell of monsters living in the mountains who could be scared away by fire and loud noises. Makes sense, right?

In the winter, when food was scarce, the monsters would come down to the villages looking for food, and the villagers used these techniques to scare them away. These methods gradually developed into the traditions of Spring Festival – the fire evolved into lanterns and use of the colour red and the loud noises evolved into loud music and use of firecrackers and fireworks.

One of the most common stories, that of Nian, the monster who was scared away, is in fact a modern tale, but clearly based on the old legends.


Stick couplets with auspicious phrases written on them around your door – two either side and one above the door. You can buy them from supermarkets or have them hand-written for a more traditional feel or personal touch. Couplets can also be given as a gift before the holiday.

Stick ‘fu’ characters in pairs on doors and windows. Fu means blessings and is one of the most auspicious characters. It’s often placed upside down as ‘upside down fu’ is pronounced the same as ‘blessings arrive’ in Chinese.Inside, avoid cut flowers as they represent cutting off luck. Common decorations are orange trees (which represent prosperity and are often decorated with red envelopes) and orchids (which represent fertility).


New Year’s Eve (the 4th of February) is when people celebrate. Spring Festival is very much a family holiday, and people gather together in the evening to prepare food, eat ‘reunion dinner’ and watch the CCTV Spring Festival Gala (CCTV1, 8pm ), which has been a central part of celebrations for most Chinese since it began in 1983. Around a billion people watched it in 2018, and it holds the world record for most-watched TV program.

Food is a central part of celebrations. Just like at Christmas, the same traditional foods are eaten every year, including fish (representing prosperity) dumplings (the more you can eat the wealthier you’ll be) and Niangao (cake made of glutinous rice that represents progression). Spring rolls, noodles, oranges and tangerines are also eaten. All these foods have lucky meanings.

At midnight on New Year’s Eve and on particular days during the festival, if allowed by the local government, everyone heads outside to watch a profusion of firecrackers and fireworks being set off.

Some points to consider

  • Make sure you are stocked up – many shops and Taobao sellers stop trading to head back to their hometowns one or even two weeks before the festival, and may not return until after the 15th day.
  • Most delivery companies stop about 4 days before, with SF operating up until two days before.

  • If you’re in an urban area, major shops and supermarkets usually only close on New Year’s Day.
  • In most areas public transportation runs as normal.
  • Fireworks and firecrackers are set off by individuals, usually from the middle of the road or area of waste ground. There are no public displays on the mainland, but these are common in other countries with a large diaspora.
  • Note: fireworks and firecrackers are increasingly banned in urban areas on the mainland due to safety and pollution concerns. If you do live in an area without a ban, prepare to find the streets covered in squibs and firecracker paper and smoke hanging in the air on New Year’s morning.

  • If you’re lucky enough to have enough one, discuss time off with your ayi well in advance. Many may expect a month off with full pay.
  • If you’ve been invited to someone’s home for the festival, tea and fruit always make good gifts, or cigarettes or alcohol if appropriate. If they have children, take sweets and red envelopes with 20-50 yuan inside.

Even if you’re not celebrating, you might like to hang decorations, clean your house from top to bottom beforehand, and ensure you don’t sweep anything up on New Year’s Day so you don’t sweep the luck away!

And don’t forget, if you want beautiful papercuts or couplets to decorate your home or as gifts for friends or colleagues, the CK Culture Boutique has you covered. Drop by the store (or get in contact) to see our handmade and machine-cut papercuts or to order couplets!

Learn more with CK & INN!

Want to learn more about the most important event in the Chinese calendar? What’s involved, what the symbolism is, more about how you can celebrate and how to talk about Spring Festival in Chinese?Then join Cultural Keys at the next INN gathering, where we’ll be giving a presentation on all the above, and more! Scan the QR code in the poster below for more information or to sign up.

Do you find this info useful? Do you have any Spring Festival tips we didn’t mention that you think other expats may find useful? Let us know in the comments below. We always love to hear your thoughts and feedback!

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Cultural Keys, a registered company in Hong Kong, Beijing and the UK, was founded in 2013 by three expats looking to help people better access, understand and enjoy life and traditional culture in China.

Since then, Cultural Keys has helped hundreds of people do exactly that.

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