If you live in an area that has a Chinatown, chances are that at some point you've watched the Chinese New Year celebrations. However, Chinese New Year (also called the Spring Festival) doesn't begin and end on a single weekend. Instead, the Spring Festival lasts a full fifteen days, with preparations beginning before the old year has come to a close. By the time the New Year arrives, families have already spent several days preparing for the big event; cleaning the house, buying gifts, and cooking festive foods.
People often wonder why the date for Chinese New Year changes each year. The Chinese calendar is a combination solar/lunar calendar, based on a number of rather complex astronomical calculations, including the longitude of the sun. Chinese New Year falls on the second new moon after the winter solstice (all months begin with a new moon). In 2014, Chinese New Year Day falls on January 31st.
How did Chinese New Year come to be celebrated? According to an ancient legend, people were once tormented by a beast called a Nian - a ferocious creature with an extremely large mouth, capable of swallowing several people in a single bite. Relief from the Nian came only when an old man tricked the beast into disappearing. In reality, New Years festivities probably evolved from a desire to celebrate the end of winter and the fertility and rebirth that come with the spring, much like the ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia. Today, New Years is about family reunions and wishing everyone good fortune in the coming year.
The Spring Festival is China's major traditional holiday, and is also celebrated in other parts of Southeast Asia, including Vietnam (where New Year's Day is called "Tet"), Malaysia, Taiwan, and of course, Hong Kong. However, in my research I couldn't find any mention of Chinese New Year's celebrations in Japan. Lisa Heupel, an expert on Japanese Culture, came up with a possible reason - apparently the Japanese followed the lunar calendar until the middle of the nineteenth century. However, after the Meiji Restoration in 1868, they adopted the Gregorian calendar. Since that time New Years is celebrated on January 1st. While there are other popular festivals celebrating the arrival of spring, such as Hanami or the cherry blossom viewing festival, for the most part Chinese New Year goes unnoticed in Japan, except for a few small celebrations by the Chinese who live there.
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