The Chinese calendar is based on the lunar year, so the date of the New Year changes. It usually begins on the second new moon after the winter solstice (which occurs in the 11th month) and ends with the Lantern Festival fifteen days later, on the next full moon.
The Jade Emperor and the Twelve Animals
This is the traditional story of how the twelve years of the Chinese calendar came to be named after twelve animals:
The Jade Emperor (the Emperor of the heavens) decided there should be a way of measuring Time. He called all the animals to him and challenged them to race one another across the river. The first twelve to reach the other side would have a year of the Zodiac named after them.
The Rat and the Cat, who were good friends at the time, were worried that they would not be able to swim so far. They asked the Ox to carry them over, and the Ox agreed. But just before they reached the shore, the Rat pushed the Cat off the Ox, and then leapt off onto the bank to arrive first. The Ox followed, and the Cat was still floundering in the water. The Jade Emperor therefore named the first year after the Rat, and the second after the Ox.
The Tiger swam hard and came in third. The Rabbit didn’t swim at all but hopped across from log to log. He came fourth. The Dragon arrived in fifth place. The Jade Emperor was surprised that he had not been first, as the Dragon could fly as well as swim. The Dragon explained that he had stopped to make rain for those animals that were thirsty, and then he had blown a breeze to push the Rabbit’s log nearer to the shore.
The Horse was coming next, but the Snake slithered in front of him and made him jump. The sneaky Snake came sixth and the Horse seventh.
The Goat, the Monkey and the Rooster worked together and travelled across the river in a raft. The Jade Emperor rewarded them by making the Goat eighth, the Monkey ninth and the Rooster tenth.
When the Dog arrived in eleventh place, the Jade Emperor asked him why he had not come sooner seeing as he was such a good swimmer. The Dog explained that he had stopped to have a bath.
Finally, the Boar arrived in twelfth place. He had stopped to eat, and then to sleep.
As for the Cat, he was still struggling in the water. He never did get a year named after him, and it is said that this is why cats and rats do not get on to this day.
It is believed that you take on the characteristics of the animal in whose year you are born.
In Chinese culture, the Dragon is a generous, helpful creature. He can conjure storm clouds to bring rain and can fly, walk and swim. Those born in the Year of the Dragon are said to be brave, passionate and self-confident. The lucky colour associated with the Dragon is yellow.
The Story of Nian the Monster
Chinese legend tells of a Monster called Nian who lived in the mountains. He destroyed villages and ate humans. The Jade Emperor ordered him to stay in the mountains except for the first and fifteenth day of each New Year. During these days, Nian could come down from the mountains and eat any villager who hadn’t protected their home.
There are different versions of the next part of the story. Some say that a wise old man or a beggar found the solution to the problem of Nian, others that it was a god sent from heaven who saved the people and some that it was the people themselves who sorted it out. But the plan was the same: to terrify Nian with loud noises, fire and bright colours.
The people banged drums and symbols, let off fire crackers and painted their homes red to scare Nian away. The plan worked and Nian was never seen again. This is why during the Chinese New year celebrations there are fireworks and firecrackers and people decorate their homes with red and wear red clothes.
The Lantern Festival
There are many stories associated with the origins of the Lantern Festival, which takes place on the fifteenth day of the New Year and marks the end of the celebrations. It is thought to have begun as a uniting of people and families, and can be seen as a version of the Western St Valentine’s Day. Many people watch lantern parades. Some lanterns have riddles painted on them.
Chinese New Year customs and beliefs
Spring Cleaning - Just before the New Year, people clean their houses so that all the bad luck of the old year is swept away. Then all the dustpans and brushes are put away so that no cleaning can be done at New Year, because you might sweep out the good luck that the New Year brings. Doors and windows are left open on New Year’s Day to let the New Year in.
Flowers – people decorate their homes with plants that are in bloom to symbolise rebirth and new growth. They also hang up scrolls and banners with good luck sayings on them.
Lai See – this is a red envelope that is left for children by their parents and grandparents. Each envelope contains ‘lucky money’.
Tangerines and Oranges – these are given as gifts at New Year. It is important that the stem and leaves are still on the fruit as this represents the good relationship between the giver and the receiver.
Food – as well as tangerines and oranges, people also traditionally eat dumplings and candied fruit at New Year. An abundance of food is important as it symbolises prosperity for the household. It is also believed that noodles should not be cut to represent long life.
The Kitchen God – this god is said to give a report about each family to the Jade Emperor. To stop him from saying anything bad about you, it is said that you should keep his mouth very full of food. At New Year, people make offerings of sweet cakes, or hang up a poster onto which they rub honey during the morning of New Years Day.
No Crying! - it is thought that if you cry on New Year ’s Day then you will cry all year. Children are allowed to get away with mischief on this day in case scolding them makes them cry.
The Dragon Dance– because the Dragon is seen as helpful and friendly in Chinese culture, a special dance is traditionally done in street processions at New Year to scare off evil spirits. A long, giant, dragon ‘puppet’ is carried on sticks by dancers who weave its body about.
The Lion Dance – this is another street dance. Two dancers make up the head and body of the Lion. The head is decorated with a mirror to scare off evil spirits with their own reflection. Another dancer plays the part of the ‘Laughing Buddha’ who teases the Lion with a banana leaf fan. They dance to the music of drums, gongs and symbols. The Lion goes from door to door where people have hung green vegetables and red envelopes of money. The Lion ‘eats’ the vegetables and the envelopes, and then throws the leaves of the vegetables over the ground to represent a fresh start and good luck.
Chinese New Year Activities
Collect lots of simple resources that can be used to explore Chinese New Year, such as red fabric, red card, red envelopes, play money, small world animals, brooms and dustpans, logs, sticks, blue fabric, lanterns, books about the New Year, families, animals, Dragons etc. These can be used in lots of different ways to support children as they develop their interests around this celebration. There may be parents and other family members who could come in and share some Chinese New Year traditions with the children. A good starting point is the story of the Animal Race across the river. This could be read from a book or told using small world props.
Spring Cleaning – in the days before New Year, collect lots of brooms, dustpans and brushes, feather dusters, cloths etc and invite the children to help you do some spring cleaning.
Chinese writing – try to get hold of traditional Chinese New Year banners and decorations with writing on them. How are the words written, which direction do we read them? The children may want to have a go themselves. Offer strips of red paper and black paint with soft ended brushes for the children to experiment with.
Families – Chinese New Year is a time for families to get together. Use circle time to talk with the children about their families and have books about different families available to look at.
Lai See – the children can do lots of number play with red envelopes and toy money. They may want to count the coins into or out of the envelope, write numbers on the envelopes, write numbers on little squares of gold or yellow paper and put them in the envelopes and give them out to children and staff.
Which year were you born in? – the children may be interested in the years being named after animals. They may want to find out which animal year they were born in. Some children might want to find out more about their animal from books and pictures.
Animal race – set up the water tray with pebbles, sticks and water to represent the river and appropriate small world animals for re-enacting the race across the river. Alternatively, collect the small world animals, some sticks and blue fabric in a box for the children to set up the race themselves on the floor.
Animal masks – the children might like to become an animal from the race. Help them to make masks using card – have a basic shape with eye holes in various animal colours and then a selection of different ears to add on. Help them to collect other resources that might be useful like fur, string for whiskers, other colours for stripes etc.
Act out the animal race – the children may like to wear their masks outside and have a race themselves. Help them to mark out the two sides of the river with rope or blue fabric. Add some boxes or large sticks to be logs and rocks. They may repeat the original version of the story or create their own.
Move like a... – the children could have fun indoors or outside moving like a rat, horse, snake etc. They may enjoy watching a clip of a traditional Lion or Dragon street dance. Have a selection of red and gold fabric available for children to use as props if they want to have a go at dancing like a lion or a dragon. Some children might like to fold concertina paper fans to dance with like the Laughing Buddha in the Lion Dance.
Flowers – at New Year people decorate their houses with flowers. Bring in bunches of flowers and invite the children to help you arrange them in vases. They may want to make flowers using resources like tissue paper and pipe cleaners. Look outside for signs of bulbs coming up or early buds and have some bulbs that are already shooting in pots indoors. This could inspire an interest in plants and growing things and the children may like to plant some seeds and watch them grow.
Flowers in the water tray – float flower heads in the water tray. Add gold glitter and small plastic bowls and pebbles or gemstones.
Investigate Dragons – some children may be interested in Dragons. Look at pictures of Chinese dragons in books; make a little concertina dragon puppet on two sticks; find out about the komodo dragon.
Lanterns – on the fifteenth day of the New Year children may want to make some lanterns. Make simple lanterns from a rectangle of card with cuts in strips all the way along. Curl the card round to make a cylinder. Add a strip of card over the top to be a handle. The children could hang them up or attach them to sticks and have their own lantern parade outside.
Red! – make lots of red things available – red fabric for dressing up, red paint, red pens, red hats, red paper, red ribbon etc. Invite the children to wear something red for the day.
Where is China? –the children may show an interest in where China is. Collect together a globe, an atlas and a Chinese flag. Ask the children to help you find China and stick a spot on it. Find the UK too. How many countries would you have to fly across to get to China? This may lead to looking at maps in general, or to exploring faraway places.
Food – eat tangerines and satsumas at snack time. Lots of opportunities to talk about how many segments there are. Cook noodles and eat them with chopsticks. There could be lots of comparative talk about how long everyone’s noodles are. A parent or grandparent may be able to come in and cook something to help celebrate Chinese New Year.
Music – play the children some music from China. Collect some symbols, drums and gongs and explore the sounds they make. Some children may want to dance to the music they make, or they may decide to accompany a lantern parade.
Role-play – Chinese restaurant – hang lanterns, add tables and chairs, collect a wok and chopsticks, cut string for noodles, set out bowls and spoons, red fabric for table cloths. Find posters of Chinese Dragons or Chinese food. Ask the children to help you set it up. They may want to make some menus, having a go at Chinese writing.
Books – here are a few of the books available about Chinese New Year: Lanterns and Firecrackers – A Chinese New Year Story by Jonny Zucker and Jan Barger Cohen (Frances Lincoln), My Chinese New Year by Monica Hughes (Heinemann), Cleversticks by Bernard Ashley (Harper Collins – not about New Year, but about being able to eat with chopsticks), Dragon Dance by Joan Holub and Benrei Huang (Puffin).
Learn how to say ‘Happy New Year! ‘ – ‘Kung Hei Fat Choy!’