Forget January 01 – for proponents of Far Eastern culture, the New Year in 2018 began on February 16, kicking off two weeks of festive activities to ring in the “Year of the Dog”. The celebration of Lunar New Year has spread internationally, partly thanks to the far reach of Chinese expatriate communities. Airports, art galleries, storefronts large and small, hotels near and far, restaurants, rail cars, car dealerships and candy stores, engagement points across the globe are thoughtfully decorated in red, reaching out to the world’s Chinese population celebrating this most festive time of year.
Chinese New Year (Spring Festival) has a far-reaching history of over 3,800 years. The origin of the festival can be traced back to the worshiping activities in China’s ancient agrarian society. The date for the ceremony wasn’t fixed till the Han Dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD), when Emperor Wudi commanded to use the lunar calendar. From its ancient origins in Yinshang Age (17th century BC – 1046 BC) to present day, the festival has several names such as Yuanchen, Yuanri and Yuandan.
The Chinese New Year festival dates change every year, as it follows the lunar calendar, based on the movement of the moon. It is also called ‘Spring Festival’, as it falls after the ‘solar term’, Beginning of Spring’ (Li Chun), and is a festival in the spring. The Spring Festival is the most important traditional festival in China, and many old customs are inherited from its ancient origins and development throughout history. It is the longest public holiday, and the entire country is on the move. It is not only celebrated throughout Mainland China, but also observed in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Vietnam, Singapore, and some other Asian countries, as well as Chinatowns around the world.
Chinatown in Manhattan’s Lower East Side has a resident population of approximately 150,000. The Chinese population mainly comes from the provinces of Guangdong and Fujian, as well as Hong Kong. Today, the area boasts hundreds of garment factories with a yearly payroll bill of above $200 million, a jewelry industry worth roughly $100 million in gold and diamond sales annually, and over 200 restaurants.
San Francisco’s Chinatown claims to be the oldest in North America. The first Chinese immigrants arrived in the city in 1848, and the area is one of San Francisco’s most visited neighborhoods. Chinatown in Canada’s largest city Toronto dates back to the 1870’s, with the opening of the first Chinese business — a laundry. Chinese population growth in the following years was slow due to discrimination against Chinese immigrants finding jobs, although by the turn of the 20th century a firm population was established. Toronto’s Chinatown comprises of immigrants from Asia broadly, including India, Vietnam and Laos.
Lucky, if you are in Hong Kong during Chinese New Year, the city’s biggest and most colorful festival. It is impossible not to be caught up in the energy, as you squeeze into crowded temples to pray for good fortune, browse festive markets selling auspicious foods, and blooms and photograph the shock-red lanterns that adorn the city. The International Chinese New Year Parade is one of Hong Kong’s most anticipated annual events with fantastic floats and spectacular performances, welcoming the New Year.
As part of the Chinese New Year, ‘Golden Week’ is truly a time of breathtaking cultural beauty. While regional traditions and customs may vary, the age-old spirit of the occasion remains the same. Whether young or old, rich or poor, urban or rural, hip of homely, grandparents or grandbabies, this is a time of collective honoring of the past, a celebration of the present, and hope for the future.
No matter where they are, people try their best to return home for a family reunion, like westerners attempting to spend Christmas with their families. Meanwhile, some families travel together during the holiday. This makes the world’s largest annual migration, known as the Spring Festival Travel Rush. The total trips made by plane, train, bus and ship can reach nearly 3 billion. The reunion dinner on Chinese New Year’s Eve is a big feast to commemorate the past year. This is the most important time to be with families. After the reunion dinner, families sit together to watch the Spring Festival Gala while chatting. As the most watched TV program, the gala collects various well-selected performances, targeting audiences of different generations. Fireworks are an indispensable part of the celebration to liven up the air of Spring Festival. All families set off fireworks to celebrate the festival. The biggest firework show is on Lunar New Year’s Eve – the annual largest usage of fireworks on the planet.
Celebrated on the 15th day of the first Chinese lunar month, the Lantern Festival traditionally marks the end of the Chinese New Year Spring Festival period. This year, it falls on Friday, March 02. The Lantern Festival, also known as the ‘Yuan Xiao Festival’, welcomes the lunar year’s first full moon. It’s a dazzling holiday that wraps up Chinese New Year’s annual Spring Festival with a night of sparkling lights.
According to China’s various folk customs, people get together on the night of the Lantern Festival to celebrate with different activities. As China is a vast country with a long history and diverse cultures, Lantern Festival customs and activities vary regionally including lighting and enjoying (floating, fixed, held, and flying) lanterns, appreciating the bright full moon, setting off fireworks, flying drones, guessing riddles written on lanterns, eating tang yuan (dumplings), lion dances, dragon dances, and walking on stilts.
The Lantern Festival celebration dates back some 2,000 years to lanterns hung in Buddhist temples by monks during the Han Dynasty. By imperial decree, temples, homes and palaces across China adopted the practice of hanging brightly-lit lanterns on the 15th night of the year’s first lunar month. Once the Lantern Festival passes, there’s no need to fear Chinese New Year taboos, and it’s appropriate to take down Chinese New Year decorations.
When the festival comes, lanterns of various shapes and sizes (traditional globes, fish, dragons, goats) can be seen everywhere, including households, shopping malls, parks, and streets, attracting numerous viewers. Children may hold small lanterns while walking the streets. The lanterns’ artwork vividly demonstrates traditional Chinese images and symbols such as fruits, flowers, birds, animals, people, and buildings. Lighting lanterns is a way for people to pray that they will have good futures and express their best wishes for their families. Women who want to be pregnant would walk under a hanging lantern praying for a child.
Guessing (solving) lantern riddles, starting in the Song Dynasty (960–1279), is one of the most important and popular activities of the Lantern Festival. Shopkeepers and other lantern owners attach paper slips to their lanterns with riddles written on them referencing Chinese poems or folk tales. People crowd round to guess the riddles. If you’re clever enough to crack the code, you may win a prize.
Eating tang yuan is an important custom of the Lantern Festival. Tang yuan are also called yuanxiao when eaten for the Lantern Festival. The glutinous rice balls known as tang yuan are the Lantern’s Festival’s iconic food. These round balls, most commonly filled with sweet sesame or red bean paste, resemble the shape of the full moon, and symbolize family togetherness and happiness.
It’s most fun to simply stroll the neighborhood at night taking in the lanterns displayed outside homes, arranged in parks and hung along streets. Red globes are most traditional, though you’ll see everything from geometric shapes to dragons and other animals. Outside of China, you’re likely to see Lantern Festival celebrations in communities that also commemorate Chinese New Year. It’s common to see street festivals and toned-down versions of the giant outdoor lantern exhibitions found in cities across China.
Where is Best to See Lanterns in China?
During the Lantern Festival, many lantern fairs are held across China, allowing visitors the opportunity to experience Lantern Festival celebrations in public places.
Here a few top places to enjoy spectacular and colorful lanterns and performances:
Qinhuai International Lantern Festival (the biggest in China), taking place January 28 through March 03, 2018, at Confucius Temple, Qinhuai Scenic Zone, Nanjing.
Xiamen Lantern Festival, taking place February 15 through March 03, 2018 at Yuanboyuan Garden, Xiamen City.
Shanghai Datuan Peach Garden Lantern Festival, taking place from mid-March to early April, 2018 at Datuan Peach Garden, Datuan Town, Pudong New District, Shanghai.
Guangzhou Yuexiu Park Lantern Fair, taking place February 08 through March 11, 2018 at Yuexiu Park in Guangzhou.
AirlinePros partners Hong Kong Airlines, Air Macau, Shandong Airlines, Xiamen Airlines, and Vietjet offer various options for traveling across Asia, and experience China. Hong Kong Airlines offers daily non-stop service between Los Angeles and Hong Kong, with San Francisco flights to be launched on March 25, 2018.
Xiamen Airlines flies non-stop from New York (JFK), Seattle, and Los Angeles to Fuzhou, Qingdao, and Xiamen.