The History of Spring Festival

Chinese people around the world are ready for the lunar new year, also known in Chinese as Spring Festival 春节 Chūnjié – the Year of the Ox! As it’s celebrated according to the lunar calendar, in 2021 it falls tomorrow, February 12th.

Read on to take a look at the origins of, and stories behind, one of the world’s most celebrated holidays! 

People buy red paper cuts for Spring Festival

The precise origins of Spring Festival are lost in the mists of time. It may have developed out of winter ceremonies honouring gods and ancestors around the Shang Dynasty (1600–1046 BC). By the 200s AD, the traditions of New Year that we see today, such as having a big family dinner, were developing, and this development continued through the years, particularly during the prosperous Tang, Song and Qing dynasties. 

A family celebrates Spring Festival during the Qing Dynasty (by Yao Wenhan)

The name ‘Spring Festival’ (春节 Chūnjié)  is actually quite modern: it’s from 1912, when the Republic of China adopted the Gregorian calendar. The old name for the lunar new year (Yuan Dan 元旦 Yuándàn) was re-appropriated for January 1st and Sun Yatsen came up with the term Spring Festival for the Lunar New Year. 

The act of driving away the monster Nian is said to have inspired many Spring Festival customs

Also surprisingly modern is the well-known legend of the monster Nian. It’s now a staple of the Spring Festival mythos, but in fact there’s no record of it at all before the 19th century. The story goes that every winter as food became scarce the monster Nian would attack villages, eating not only the crops but children too.  The villagers used fire and banged together their pots and pans to scare the monster away, and every winter they preempted attacks by lighting many lanterns, fires, hanging red everywhere and making loud noises. These customs have come down to us as the traditions of dressing in red, decorating buildings in red, hanging lanterns, banging drums, setting off fireworks, and creating representations of creatures capable of scaring away evil: dragons and lions, seen in dragon and lion dances.

Much, much older is the story of the twelve animals, and how each year in the twelve-year cycle came to be represented by a different animal. The twelve animals are known as 生肖 Shēngxiào, starting with the rat and ending with the pig. The Jade Emperor (the ruler of heaven) ordered that animals would be designated calendar signs and the twelve that arrived first would be chosen. On that day, the rat got up early and rushed to see the Jade Emperor. On the way, he came across the ox, who ran much faster. Being kind, the Ox agreed to take the rat on his back. When they arrived, the rat jumped off and scampered ahead, becoming the first animal to arrive, while the ox had to settle for second place! The story goes on to explain the positions of some of the other animals too. The origins of the system and the story are unknown, but the twelve animals were well-established by the first century AD. 

What stories (or versions of the above stories!) have you heard about the origins of Spring Festival? Let us know in the comments below. We always love hearing your thoughts and insights! 

Photo Credits
– Cultural Keys; Daily Art Magazine;;

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