Spring Festival (aka Chinese New Year) comes to an official end on Monday. Throughout these weeks, a couple people have said something like “Spring Festival is like Christmas, right?” And the answer is: well, sort of. If we have to draw comparisons with American holidays, it is more accurately a mash-up of Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years, and MLK Day/Valentines Day/Presidents Day.
The similarity with MLK Day/Valentines Day/Presidents Day is the date. The date of Spring Festival is based on the Chinese lunar calendar and falls sometime between late January and February on the Western calendar. Last year was February 19, this year February 8, next year January 28. Or approximately when MLK Day/Valentines Day/Presidents Day occur. The last two years Ash Wednesday was also during Spring Festival.
The similarity with New Years is the reason for celebrating. This holiday is also known as Chinese New Year in English because it celebrates the beginning of the year on the Chinese lunar calendar. Although China also uses the Western calendar, known as the public calendar, Spring Festival is also a new beginning. I don’t think anyone makes new years resolutions, but there is definitely a sense of things beginning again. “Happy New Year” is an appropriate greeting for the holiday.
One of the most important customs is also similar to Western New Years Eve. Chinese New Years Eve is actually the most important day of the festival. People gather with their families for dinner and stay up until at least midnight to see the new year in. As they wait for midnight, people watch the annual nationally televised New Years Eve gala full of various performers—singers, dancers, acrobats, magicians, skits, and comedy acts. There’s no kissing at midnight, though.
Like Christmas, Spring Festival is the biggest holiday of the year. It is the time kids wait for all year. When China does Spring Festival, that is all it does. Traditionally the holiday is 15 days long, although these days most people get 1 week off from work. Small shops and migrant workers do tend to take 15 days, and some even a month, because this is the only vacation they get all year. Schools are usually closed about a month for the winter break. As I was explaining to a few people this week, even though the holiday season in the U.S. is longer, we don’t all take that many vacation days. We work and celebrate at the same time.
Both holidays come with decorations, but Christmas gets more colors. Spring Festival’s color is red, with gold the acceptable accent color. The photos in this post are all from a day I walked around my neighborhood determined to take photos of all the red. There are red flags, knot hanging things, poetic couplets over doors, and lanterns. There are lanterns everywhere. The courtyard of my apartment building also has what I would call “Christmas lights” (in assorted colors) hanging on the trees. It is a very festive time of year.
There are also gifts in both holidays, at least for kids. The gift giving custom is much less complicated in China: you only give gifts to people who are unmarried, and the gift is a hong bao, which means a red envelope filled with money. Hong bao can contain quite a sum of money, from what I’m told. If you are visiting family, they usually give other gifts, usually food items. Before Spring Festival the supermarket was full of special displays of beautifully packed boxes of milk, wine, snacks, or local specialties to bring wherever you are going.
And then there are two big similarities to Thanksgiving. You could also argue that these are similarities with Christmas, but I think they are more important to Thanksgiving. The first is that people return home, to wherever their family is. Beijing clears out (according to some Beijingers, it becomes Beijing instead of the Capitol). The sidewalks only have a few people. The roads are not constantly full of traffic jams. There are seats on buses and subways. It is amazing. The downside is that because so many people go home, all at the same time, it is like traveling the day before Thanksgiving, China style, which inevitably means more crowded than you can dream of. If families live in the same place as extended family, they get together with them. Being together with family is an important part of Spring Festival, and for people who live far from their families, it is a precious time of year.
The menu for the occasion is also very set, not unlike we always eat turkey and stuffing. The tradition is to have a whole fish for New Year’s Eve dinner because “have fish” sounds very similar to “get fortune” in Chinese. Then, later in the evening you make Chinese dumplings to eat at midnight and for breakfast the next morning. When I was teaching English, I assigned a journal topic describing family traditions for a holiday. I assumed that I would get interesting stories about different family traditions. Instead I read about the same customs in every journal: going home, staying up until midnight, and eating dumplings. I did learn how much uniformity there is in the traditions. I also learned not to assign that topic if I wanted to get unique entries.
The similarity between Spring Festival and Fourth of July: fireworks. Except that Fourth of July fireworks have nothing on Spring Festival fireworks. I don’t think there are any professional fireworks exhibits for Spring Festival, because you don’t need them. Everyone is outside in courtyards, parking lots, and parks setting off their own professional level fireworks. There were more restrictions placed on fireworks in Beijing this year, after the air quality went from awesome on New Years Eve to terrible on New Years Day last year. Those restrictions meant that you could only buy fireworks for 10 days or so, at fewer locations than in the past. And the times to set them off were restricted to New Years Eve and New Years Day, 24 hours a day and then from 7am-midnight until February 22. I went to bed early New Years Eve, because I was quite jet lagged, and when I woke up at 11:57pm, I knew instantly that it was midnight by the volume level of the fireworks. I got up and watched fireworks going off in a number of places across my part of the city. Since then, there hasn’t been a day without at least occasional firework booms. There have also been a few times I’ve been outside in broad daylight and jumped a mile when some were set off closer to me than I was expecting. Fireworks scare me, so I stick to taking photos of the “fireworks carnage” left over after all the fireworks are set off.
One characteristic of Spring Festival that I don’t think is reflected in any American holiday is the custom of visiting family on each day of the holiday. There are customs for what part of the family you visit on each day of the New Year. You spend New Years Eve with the husband’s family (or your family, if you aren’t married). New Years Day you go to the wife’s/mother’s family. There are more customs for the days beyond that, but they aren’t followed as strictly in the city. But the general custom of New Years Eve with the husbands family and New Years Day with the wife’s seems still generally followed. And of course, wherever you go, you eat a lot!
So yes, there are similarities with an American Christmas, and other American holidays, but I prefer to just let Spring Festival stand on its own. Celebrating Spring Festival also means that the holiday season for Americans living in China basically extends from Thanksgiving until the end of Spring Festival, which is basically a quarter of the year. Doesn’t that make you want to come live in China?