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Celebrating the Chinese New Year

Of all the holidays we celebrate in this world, the Chinese New Year, also known as Spring Festival, may just be the biggest and most extravagant of them all. “The best way to describe Chinese New Year is like a combination of Christmas, Western New Year, Fourth of July, and your birthday all wrapped up into one awesome holiday,” says Roscoe Mathieu, 24, an American who lives and works in China.

The Traditions

Indeed, the multi-day celebration has a little something for everyone. The biggest event of Chinese New Year’s Eve, is dinner, with entire families gathering to spend the meal together. While Chinese restaurants will stay open on New Year’s Eve (and are just about the only Chinese-run businesses that will), Mathieu recommends finding a Chinese friend to spend the holiday with. Chicken and fish are commonly served, as are long noodles (representing long life), dumplings, nian gao (a cake of glutinous rice), melon seeds, and turnip and taro cakes. The fireworks that close the night are not to be missed—this is the birthplace of the firecracker, after all, and the displays are breathtaking.

The two-week period following New Year’s Eve includes lion and dragon dances, feasts, parades, and the Lantern Festival, which closes out the festivities on the fifteenth day. “It’s one of the most romantic days of the year,” Mathieu says. “Plan on buying wine and chocolates.”

The Symbolism

At its core, the Chinese New Year is about ushering in a new year of happiness, wealth, and longevity. Say “gong xi fa cai” (Mandarin) or “gong hey fat choy” (Cantonese) to wish others good luck and prosperity.

To get the new year off to a fresh start, people will extensively clean their houses as well as buy clothes and get a haircut. “They want everything to be new when midnight hits,” Mathieu says. If you’re invited to someone’s house, make sure you show up with a small gift, like oranges, chocolates, or candies.

Flashes of the color red—which symbolizes joy, virtue and sincerity—are everywhere during Chinese New Year celebrations. Red decorations, lanterns, clothes, and envelopes are especially popular—the envelopes usually contain money and are gifted from elders to youth, or married couples to singles.

Traveling to China

If you want to experience the holiday first-hand in China, be prepared for crowds—lots and lots of crowds. Chunyun, the term for the travel season around the Chinese New Year, has such a major traffic load that it’s called the largest annual human migration in the world. In fact, the number of passenger journeys during this period easily exceeds 2 billion. “All of the trains, planes, highways, and other forms of transportation are packed,” Mathieu says. The best way to get around, he continues, is with elbows deployed—that’s known as Guangdong style, a reference to the most populous province in China.

A working knowledge of the local language and a friend to help you navigate are big pluses, but a sense of curiosity and adventure might be the greatest asset of all. If you’re not deterred by the logistical challenges of getting around, be prepared for a party like you’ve never experienced before. As Mathieu says, “Honestly, I wouldn’t be anywhere else.”