Every year when winter is about to end and spring is coming, the Chinese always grandly celebrate the first traditional festival in a year — the Spring Festival (New Year of lunar calendar). It can be called the grandest and most exciting festival for the Chinese, containing a long history and rich cultural connotations.
Spring Festival is the beginning of lunar year, commonly called Guo Nian. In the long history of 2,000 years, Chinese New Year customs have undergone a developing process of germination, formation, change, and transition.
Pre-Qin period is the germinating time of New Year customs. At that time, people held celebrations after agricultural affairs were finished as a sacrificial activity to thank gods’ bestowment. “July,” The Book of Songs, records the festival customs at the turn of two years in the period of Western Zhou ( 1046-771 BC ), when people offered luscious wind and lamb to gods as reward for their blessing and obligation during the past year and as invocation for favorable weather and bumper harvest in the oncoming year. There was not a fixed date for these celebrations because different states used different calendars. But it’s around the time in winter when agriculture was not so busy. It is the embryo of New Year customs in later generations.
New Year customs were finalized in Han Dynasty. After the social tumult at the end of Warring States ( 475-221 BC ) and Qin Dynasty, government of Western Han ( 206 BC-AD 25 ) adopted “Rehabilitation” policy in its early time, which recovered and developed the social production and restored social order. People were more hopeful about their life and so a series of festive customs got to be formed. The adoption of Taichu Calendr stabilized calendar system for a long time, so the first day of the first lunar month as the first day of a year was settled. As a result, god worshipping, sacrificing and celebrating activities that used to be held at different time in late winter or early spring were gradually unified to be held on the first day of the first lunar month. With the development of times, New Year customs on the first day of the first lunar month were getting more and more interesting from Han Dynasty to Southern and Northern dynasties ( 420-589 ). People played fireworks, changed Spring Festival gradually developed into the most important festival in China.
New Year customs were changed in Tang Dynasty. Tang is a time of economic prosperity and political flourishing as well as frequent intercourse between Chinese and foreign cultures. New Year customs, by and by, came out of the mystic atmosphere of invocation, superstition, and evil prevention, but changed into entertaining and ceremonial celebrations. Crackers on New Year were no longer a means of keeping away ghosts and preventing evil, but were ways of joy and fun. The focus of New Year celebration shifted from god worship to entertainment for people, and to people’s own recreation and enjoyment of life. Therefore it is safe to say that only after Tang Dynasty has New Year really become a “happy festival and blessing day” for all.
New Year customs were transited in Ming ( 1368-1644 ) and Qing Dynasty, which were mainly reflected in two aspects. First, their ceremonial and social function increased. On New Year, people visited each other; high officials gave each other their cards or went to each other’s house. Common people paid attention to reciprocal courtesy, too, presenting gifts and paying New Year visits to one another. Second, their recreational function increased. During the period of New Year, all kinds of recreations were carried out – lion dance, dragon dance, drama playing, story telling, high stilts playing, land boats racing, etc., rich and colorful. Beijingers visited Changdian, Guangzhou people went to flower market, Suzhou people listened to the toll of HanshanTemple, Shanghai people went to Town God’s Temple…Recreations at different places possessed their own characteristics and different entertainments kept coming on, making people dazed and excited. New Year customs at that time fully absorbed Chinese traditional culture, becoming a fold-custom exposition where Chinese customs and traditions that had had thousands of years of history were displayed in a centralized way.
During the period of New Year, which is a traditional festival, Han nationality and most minor nationalities of China hold various celebrations, which mostly feature sacrifice to god or Buddha, memorial sacrifice to ancestors, ridding the old and welcoming and new, embracing joy and receiving fortune, and invocation for a good year. These celebrations are of varied forms and with full national characteristics.
In the past 2,000 and more years, the splendid celebration of New Year prevails in China. It almost penetrates everyone’s life and moulds the soul of every Chinese all over the world. Every time when it comes to the end of lunar year, people who are away from home hurry home to be with their families, and interesting new-year customs like staying up for the New Year, making jiaozi, posting New Year couplets, making New Year visits, and many other things have become common habits of all Chinese people. The Spring Festival customs of the Chinese have also radiated to neighboring countries like Vietnam, North Korea, South Korea, Japan, etc. They celebrate New Year in similar ways.
The Spring Festival is a traditional festival joyously celebrated by the Hans and many of minority nationalities of China on the first day of the first lunar month. It originated from laji, a Chinese term for sacrificial ceremony held at the turn of a year in the primitive society. At the ceremony, it is said, people offered to their ancestors and Heaven sacrifices of gains from farming and hunting, a token of their gratitude for their bounty as well as a manifestation of their wish for an abundant grain harvest in the coming year. According to the actual Han custom, the festival lasts from the eight of the twelfth lunar month of the old year up to the fifteenth of first lunar month of the new year. During this period, not merely on the first day of the first lunar month, varied celebrations are held. The most popular ones are dusting, pasting Spring Festival couplets, pasting New Year pictures, waiting for New Year, setting off firecrackers, paying New Year calls, performing the Dragon Dance, performing the Lion Dance, etc..