The people of China celebrate the New Year on the first day of the lunar calendar. Since it is also considered to be the first day of spring, the traditional 15-days long celebration is also called Spring Festival, where schools and shops are sometimes closed for up to a week.
According to folklore, a wild and mystical beast named “Nien,” the word for year, appears at the end of the year to feast on defenseless villagers and children. It was found that the beast could be scared away by loud noises and bright lights. Therefore the New Year tradition of lighting firecrackers, hanging of bright red “Chūnlián,” and wearing of new clothing in red or gold – the colors of good fortune and prosperity – was created.
To warn off evil spirits, the lion or dragon dance, accompanied by the playing of drum and cymbals, is performed in front of homes or at the place of work. The mythical lion or dragon represents vitality, prosperity and good fortune.
The lion or dragon’s head, made out of bamboo and papier-mâché, can weight from 15 to 50 pounds. The lion dance is performed by two people usually Kung Fu artists, while the dragon requires at least nine to 10 people. Some grand dragons can require up to 100 performers.
The modern southern lion dance, the style most often seen in the U.S., requires the performers to mimic the scratching, shaking and licking of hair like a cat, but also the strength, jumping and tumbling abilities of big cats all the while lifting and manipulating the head and tail to showcase their martial art techniques and prowess.
Families prepare for the New Year by cleaning and decorating their homes with “Chūnlián,” which are red strips or diamond-shaped paper written or printed with Chinese characters or sayings representing good fortune. Then the whole family gathers for the most important meal of the year, the New Year’s Eve reunion dinner.
Throughout the following days, they would visit different relatives’ homes for more celebration and meals. During these visitations, red envelopes filled with money, called “Hong Bao,” are given by parents to their own and other’s children and also to singles to wish them happiness and abundance in good fortune for the new year.