The Chinese New Year is based on the ancient Chinese calendar, which functioned as a religious, dynastic and social guide. Oracle bones inscribed with astronomical records and other artifacts date the calendar back as early as the 14th century B.C., during the Shang Dynasty.
The Chinese calendar was a complex timepiece. Its parameters were set according to the lunar phases as well as the solar solstices and equinoxes. Yin and yang, the opposing but complementary principles that make up a harmonious world, also ruled the calendar, as did the Chinese zodiac, the cycle of twelve stations or “signs” along the apparent path of the sun through the cosmos. Each new year was marked by the characteristics of one of the 12 zodiacal animals: the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog and pig.
2015 marks the Year of the yáng (羊), which is the Chinese word for both sheep and goat. In English, the sign may be called either. Children Born under the sign of a particular zodiac are believe to inherit the traits of that animal. In Chinese astrology Goats are described as loving-peace and “kind” and “popular”.
According to tales and legends, the beginning of Chinese New Year started with the fight against a mythical lion-like monster named Nian (年), or Chinese for “Year”. On the night of New Year’s Eve, the Nian would come out and harass people, animals, and properties.
The ancient villagers sought council from a wise old man who taught them that the Nian feared fire, the color red, and loud sounds. The villagers took the old man’s advice and began hanging red Dui
Lian in front of their houses, launching fireworks, banging drums, and lighting lanterns at the end of each year. The Nian was finally conquered.
The anniversary of the Nain’s defeat marks the “passing of the Nian” known in Chinese as guo nian (过年), or the celebration of the New Year.
The date of Chinese New Year changes each year as it is based on the lunar calendar. Chinese New Year typically falls on the second new moon after the winter solstice. While both Buddhism and Daoism have unique customs during the New Year, Chinese New Year is far older than both religions. Like many agrarian societies, Chinese New Year is rooted in much a celebration of spring just like Easter or Passover.
Depending on where rice is grown in China, the rice season lasts from roughly May to September (north China), April to October (Yangtze River Valley), or March to November (Southeast China). The New Year was likely the start of preparations for a new growing season.
Spring cleaning is a common theme during this time, as many Chinese will clean out their homes during the holiday. The New Year celebration could even have been a way to break up the boredom of the long winter months.
During the New Year celebrations, families travel long distances to spend time together. A migration known as the “Spring movement” or Chunyun (春运). In addition to lighting lanterns, setting of firecrackers, playing loud drums, and hanging Dui Lian, families spend time together and feast during the 15-day holiday.