Gung hay fat choy! Happy new year!
Chinese New Year, often called the Spring Festival, is the most important holiday in China and Chinese communities around the world.
How do you wish someone "happy new year" in Chinese? It depends on who you're talking to. Many overseas Chinese communities speak Cantonese. Gung hay fat choy is how Cantonese speakers wish you a happy new year—literally "wishing you great happiness and prosperity." In China, the official language is Mandarin. Gong xi fa cai is how Mandarin-speakers wish you a happy new year—literally "wishing you to be prosperous in the coming year."
The two-week celebration includes family and friends, feasting and fireworks, parties and parades.
For more than 3,000 years, Chinese New Year was just what it sounds like—the beginning of a new year in the Chinese calendar. The historic Chinese calendar is a lunisolar calendar, meaning dates are determined by both the moon (lunar) and the sun (solar). Months begin with every new moon, when the moon is not visible in the night sky. The new year starts on the new moon nearest the midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, sometime between January 21 and February 20.
China officially adopted the Gregorian calendar, used by the West, in 1912. After this, public celebrations of Chinese New Year waned or were even forbidden. In the late 20th century, however, the holiday was re-introduced as the “Spring Festival.”
Use this resource as a quick guide to a complex holiday!
Although there is rarely a set “program” for Chinese New Year celebrations, some days are associated with specific rituals or festivities. Read through some highlights below. Use the questions in the Questions tab to understand the significance of some of the sumptuous foods associated with Chinese New Year. Scroll through our Fast Facts to familiarize yourself with fun aspects of the Chinese zodiac.
Before New Year
Prior to the official start of the holiday, Chinese households are thoroughly cleaned. Cleaning symbolizes ridding the household of the previous year’s bad luck and making the home welcoming to good luck in the coming year. (On the first several days of the festival, tradition holds that brooms be stored, so that the newly arrived good luck will not be swept away.) As part of starting fresh in the new year, celebrants often get new clothes and haircuts, and businesses pay off the previous year’s debts.
The days or weeks leading up to Chinese New Year are also when communities begin to decorate with red: fresh red paint on the doors of businesses and homes, red paper cut-out decorations, red lanterns. Red is the color of joy and good fortune in Chinese cultures, and is most strongly associated with new year celebrations.
One of the traditional ways to begin celebrating Chinese New Year is the “reunion dinner,” when families gather to celebrate hopes for the new year.
The first day of Chinese New Year is celebrated with public and private parties, firecrackers, and the famous lion dance familiar to Western audiences. In recent years, CCTV (the Chinese state broadcaster) has aired a special TV program, “New Year’s Gala,” that gets more than 700 million viewers every year.
The first day of Chinese New Year is traditionally a day to celebrate a family’s eldest members, and families unable to visit these relatives burn incense to honor them.
The first days of Chinese New Year are also the time younger family members may begin receiving bright red envelopes full of money. These envelopes, known as lai see (Cantonese) or hong bao (Mandarin), are traditionally given to unmarried adults and children.
The second day of Chinese New Year is often reserved for visiting family members, especially married daughters visiting their parents.
The second day of Chinese New Year also recognizes the traditional creation-day of dogs. For this reason, stray dogs are often fed well on this day.
The third day of Chinese New Year is often more somber than those preceding it. It is considered bad luck to visit friends or family, or play host to visitors yourself. It is also considered bad luck to perform housework.
The third day of Chinese New Year is often the day family members honor deceased relatives by visiting graves or lighting incense or paper offerings in memory of loved ones.
In many parts of modern China, especially urban areas, the fourth day of Chinese New Year is usually when people go back to work and businesses return to normal operating hours.
The fifth day of Chinese New Year is recognized as the birthday of the god of wealth. Firecrackers are set off to get his attention. It is considered back luck to leave the house—you don’t want to be gone if the god of wealth shows up to bestow his blessings on your home.
The seventh day of Chinese New Year recognizes renri, the creation-day of human beings. To honor humanity’s connection to all living things, many Chinese (especially those in Southeast Asian communities) choose to eat vegetarian or vegan foods on this day.
The importance of food and agriculture are celebrated on the eighth day of Chinese New Year. Families feast, and may visit farms to introduce children to the importance of crops and cultivation.
The eighth day of Chinese New Year is also the traditional time when employers host a “Spring Dinner” to thank employees for their dedication and hard worth throughout the year.
The ninth day of Chinese New Year is recognized as the birthday of the Jade Emperor, the ruler of heaven in Taoist belief.
Paper effigies of Zhao Jun, the kitchen god, are sometimes burned on this day. Burning a paper effigy and allowing the smoke to waft upward is known as “sending a god” to the Jade Emperor. Zhao Jun is responsible for the household and family, and burning his effigy will let him tell the emperor the family’s deeds, concerns, and responsibilities.
The Jade Emperor’s birthday is celebrated with prayers, offerings, and banquets on the tenth day of Chinese New Year.
After more than a week of feasting, the thirteenth day of Chinese New Year is often reserved for vegetarian foods. Mustard greens in particular are eaten to symbolically cleanse the digestive system.
The beautiful Lantern Festival signals a close to the Chinese New Year. Paper lanterns light the way for lion dances and all-day parades and festivals.
The bright lights of the Lantern Festival celebrate the first full moon after Chinese New Year. The colorful lanterns, displayed outdoors as well as inside temples, are associated with guiding lost souls home.
The Lantern Festival is sometimes called the “Chinese Valentine’s Day.” According to one tradition, single women write their contact information on the rinds of mandarin oranges, which they throw into a river or stream. Single men collect the oranges and eat them—a sweet orange signifies a good match, while a sour orange signifies a bad one.
The Chinese zodiac has twelve symbols. Each symbol corresponds to a year in the Chinese calendar, which roughly coordinates with a year in the Gregorian calendar. (Chinese calendars are lunisolar and begin between mid-January to mid-February.) Chinese zodiac symbols are animals, and each animal is associated with certain character traits. Read this fun article from Nat Geo Kids to learn more!
rat: You welcome challenges and enjoy learning about new things. Funny and smart, you are generous and will protect your pack of friends.
1960, 1972, 1984, 1996, 2008, 2020
ox: You approach projects in a step-by-step manner, wanting to do things right the first time. Shy but dependable, you are caring and trustworthy and never lose sight of your goal.
1925, 1937, 1949, 1961, 1973, 1985, 1997, 2009, 2021
tiger: You're a natural leader but often like to do things by yourself. (That's how you stay in charge!) You believe in fighting for what's right, even if you'll lose in the end.
1926, 1938, 1950, 1962, 1974, 1986, 1998, 2010, 2022
rabbit: Well-liked and popular, you have a large circle of family and friends. You are very protective of them, and they protect you back. You tend to keep your cool and avoid conflicts.
1927, 1939, 1951, 1963, 1975, 1987, 1999, 2011, 2023
dragon: You go out of your way to help your friends, who often seek you out for advice. Your outgoing personality helps you get along with many types of people.
1928, 1940, 1952, 1964, 1976, 1988, 2000, 2012, 2024
snake: You rely on your instincts before asking others their opinions. At times you want to take a break from the action. It's not that you're lazy—sometimes you just like to think.
1941, 1953, 1965, 1977, 1989, 2001, 2013, 2025
horse: You have loads of energy and love adventure. You take charge and understand people, so you know how to work a crowd.
1942, 1954, 1966, 1978, 1990, 2002, 2014, 2026
goat or sheep: At your best when people who admire you flock to your side, you stick by your friends. You are artistic, creative, and like to look good.
1943, 1955, 1967, 1979, 1991, 2003, 2015, 2027
monkey: Swinging from one group of friends to another, you love to have a good time. You like to entertain your friends by showing off your talents, and they appreciate your cleverness and sense of humor.
1944, 1956, 1968, 1980, 1992, 2004, 2016, 2028
rooster: You are practical and resourceful, and you use what you have to succeed without taking a lot of risks. A hard worker, you say what's on your mind and have a sense of style that sets you apart.
1945, 1957, 1969, 1981, 1993, 2005, 2017, 2029
dog: You're a great listener who can keep a secret. Loyal to your friends, you have a keen sense of right and wrong and stick to what you believe in.
1934, 1946, 1958, 1970, 1982, 1994, 2006, 2018, 2030
pig: Smart and caring, you live to help other people. You have great taste and love to wallow in the nicer things in life.
1935, 1947, 1959, 1971, 1983, 1995, 2007, 2019, 2031
the art and science of cultivating land for growing crops (farming) or raising livestock (ranching).
large feast, or to eat at a large feasting party.
to present or give as a gift.
to prepare and nurture the land for crops.
process of planting, tending, and harvesting crops.
money, good, or service owed by one person or organization to another.
to design, garnish, or adorn with festive additions.
act or accomplishment.
series of organs and glands responsible for the ingestion, digestion, and absorption of food. Also called the alimentary canal.
sculptural representation of a disliked public figure.
person or organization that hires people for wages and salaries.
period in which daylight and darkness are nearly equal. There are two equinoxes a year.
to understand how something works or operates.
land cultivated for crops, livestock, or both.
day or other period of time set to celebrate or commemorate an event, usually with a series of parties, ceremonies, or observances.
noisemaking device made of a tube filled with explosive material.
to disallow or prohibit.
phase of the Moon when its entire disc is visible.
specific place where a body is buried.
modern calendar used throughout most of the world, introduced in 1562. Also called the Western calendar or the Christian calendar.
substance that produces a sweet odor when burned, often used in religious ceremonies.
being influenced by, or having to do with, both the moon and the sun.
dark phase of the lunar cycle when the moon is invisible or barely visible, occurring when the moon passes between the sun and earth.
earlier, or the one before.
before or ahead of.
thick outer covering on foods such as citrus fruits, cheeses, or meats.
series of customs or procedures for a ceremony, often religious.
dark, sad, or serious.
body of flowing water.
luxurious or well-supplied.
to represent an object, idea, organization, or geographical region.
people and culture focused on the teachings of Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu, advocating a life of simplicity and harmony between the natural and social worlds.
building used for worship.
beliefs, customs, and cultural characteristics handed down from one generation to the next.
developed, densely populated area where most inhabitants have nonagricultural jobs.
person who does not eat meat or any animal product.
person who does not eat meat.
to carry or convey lightly and smoothly, usually through air.
to decrease in strength or intensity.
(December 22 in the Northern Hemisphere, June 22 in the Southern Hemisphere) longest night of the year and the beginning of winter.
series of 12 constellations corresponding to certain times of the year.