Chinese New Year takes place over 15 days and preparations for this celebration begin well over 1 month before the start of the new year. Here's a brief guide on the festivities and customs that take place during this annual event.
Xiao Guo Nian
On the 24th day of the 12th month of the Chinese lunar calendar is Xiao Guo Nian ("Little New Year"). On this day, the deities of the world report to the supreme deity, Yu Huang ("Jade Emperor"). Families will offer special food offerings to the Zao Jun ("Kitchen God") so that he will speak well of the family to the emperor. Firecrackers are lit to bid farewell to the deities and spring cleaning begins
Houses are swept clean prior to the new year and traditionally, bamboo leaves are used as this is believed to drive out bad spirits. There should be no sweeping on the lunar new year itself as people believe that doing so sweeps away good luck. Festive decorations and symbols are put up around the house, like pots of kumquat and flowers, red scrolls or posters with auspicious sayings or Chun Lian ("Spring Couplets"). New clothes and haircut are also required for every individual in the family.
The whole family gathers on Chu Xi ("eve of the new year") to feast together on dinner. The dinner symbolizes the love and respect that binds them together as a unit. Every member is expected to return for this dinner. Traditionally, all sons return to their parental homes for this occasion and married daughters share the tables of their husband's families. For this meal, the best food is served in abundance, whether the family is rich or poor, to symbolize the hope for greater material wealth in the coming year. Tuan Yuan Fan ("Togetherness Meal"), as the reunion dinner is known in Mandarin, can include delicacies like abalone soup, chicken, mushrooms, duck, fish, chap chye ("mixed vegetables"), roast pork and steam boat.
The spirits of ancestors are ushered in to join in the family's celebrations. Before family members sit down to have their reunion dinner, they usually present offerings of food, fruits, tea and flowers to their ancestor's memorial tablets or tombs. In most families, the tablets are located either in their homes on the ancestral altar or in the temples.
After closing the accounts for the year, traditional Chinese bosses may give their workers bonuses. New year's eve is one of three days set aside in the lunar calendar for settling debts, especially for businessmen. It is considered a loss of face for persons to start a new year with unsettled debts. The other two days put aside for settling debts are the 5th day of the 5th lunar month (Dragon Boat Festival) and the 15th day of the 8th month (Mid-Autumn Festival).
New Year Vigil
Children are encouraged to stay awake until midnight to bless their parents with a happy new year early in the morning. Some Chinese believe that the longer their children keep away, the longer the lives of their parents. In return, the children are presented with hong bao before they go to bed.
Welcoming the God of Wealth
The traditional Chinese will offer joss sticks to the God of Wealth at their altar or by praying at temples. They consult a Chinese almanac for the most favorable hour and direction to receive the deity, usually between 11pm to 6am the next morning. Firecrackers are lit again to welcome the deity.
First Day of Chinese New Year
Yuan Dan (also Yuan Rim Yean Chen and Duan Ri) is the first of the 15 days marked for family visitations. It is usually reserved for close and senior family members.
The second day is a time for married women to visit their maiden home and renew ties with their family. During this period, the God of Wealth (above) is welcomed. This and the 16th day of the lunar mont are the best "feast" days for employees.
The third day is known as the "Loyal Dog Day" and is typically a day of rest. No visits or visitors are welcomed and it is believed evil spirits lurk on the earth in this day and it would be bad luck to be outdoors. This is why conservative Chinese businesses do not operate until the 5th day.
The Ren Ri or Yan-Yat ("Birthday of Man") is celebrated with Yu Sheng ("raw fish") being served. The act is most known by its cantonese name, "Lo Hei".
The birthday of the Jade Emperor falls on the 9th day of the lunar month. The Chinese people generally make offerings of thanks to this supreme deity.
The last day of celebrations is also the time of the first full moon of the new lunar year. It is known as Yuan Xiao Jie ("First night of the full moon") and another reunion dinner, complete wih lanterns and oranges being exchanged, takes place. This festival is also known as the Deng Jie ("Lantern Festival").