The origins of Chinese New Year are not completely known as the legend describing the holiday's beginnings varies based on the storyteller. According to About.com's Chinese Culture site, all of these stories include a monster preying on Chinese villagers who was named Nian (the Chinese word for "year"). Nian also had a lion-like appearance in many of the stories which is why Chinese New Year parades include lions.
The legends then say that an old wise man advised villagers to scare Nian away by making loud noises with firecrackers and drums and to hang red paper cutouts on their doors because Nian is scared of red. According to legend the villagers took the man's advice and defeated Nian. The Chinese recognize the date of Nian's defeat at the same time as Chinese New Year.
Date of Chinese New YearThe date of Chinese New Year is based off of the lunar calendar and as such it changes every year. The lunar calendar uses the moon's orbit around the Earth to determine dates. Based on this calendar, Chinese New Year falls on the second new moon after the winter solstice or somewhere between January 21 and February 19 on the Gregorian calendar. Festivities begin 15 days prior to the actual New Year's date.
Chinese New Year is also important in Chinese culture because in addition to starting a new year, the holiday represents the beginning of a new animal for that year. Each year of the Chinese calendar is named after one of 12 animals and the years fall into 12-year cycles with the animals. For example, 2012 was the year of the dragon while 2013 is the year of the snake and 2014 will be the year of the horse. Each of these animals has different personality traits and means different things for the years they represent and Chinese horoscopes are based on which animal sign a person has. The snake for instance is charming, gregarious, introverted, generous and smart.
Fifteen Days of FestivitiesChinese New Year lasts for 15 days and each day has a different type of festivity associated with it. The first day of Chinese New Year is a day to welcome deities and for families to honor their elders. Celebrations typically begin at midnight and it is common to light fireworks and firecrackers and burn bamboo sticks (Wikipedia).
There are various other festivities in the days following the start of Chinese New Year. Some of these include married daughters visiting their parents (the second day), bosses having lunches and dinners to thank employees for their work during the year (typically the eighth day) and many family dinners.
The fifteenth day is when the actual Chinese News Year is celebrated with the Lantern Festival. As a part of this festival families gather for meals and they later walk the streets with decorated lanterns and/or hang them at their homes. The Lantern Festival also includes a dragon dance and in some parts of the world, parades with many lights and fireworks and firecrackers.
Practices of Chinese New YearA large part of Chinese New Year revolves around traditional practices such as the use of red envelopes for gift exchange, the wearing of red clothing, fireworks, the use of certain flowers in floral arrangements and the dragon dance.
Red envelopes or red packets are traditionally given out during Chinese New Year celebrations and they normally contain money given in even amounts. The packets are passed from adult couples to children and to the elderly. The wearing of red clothing is also important during this time of year because it is believed that the color red wards off evil spirits and bad fortune. People also wear new clothing during these celebrations to symbolize the start of a new year.
Fireworks and firecrackers are another important part of Chinese New Year because, like the use of red, it is believed that the loud sounds they make will scare away evil spirits. In many parts of the world however, pyrotechnics are illegal or banned due to danger and fire hazards.
Floral arrangements are prevalent during Chinese New Year, but there are certain flowers that are used more often than others for symbolic reasons. For example, plum blossoms symbolize luckiness, while kumquat symbolizes prosperity and eggplant will heal sicknesses.
Finally, dragon dances are a significant part of all Chinese New Year celebrations. It is believed that these dances along with loud drum beats will ward off evil spirits.
Chinese New Year Celebrations around the WorldAlthough Chinese New Year is mostly celebrated in China and other parts of Asia, there are very large celebrations in cities around the world with significant Chinese populations. San Francisco, California is known for its Chinatown and very large Chinese New Year Parade and festivities each year. Other cities include with large Chinese New Year celebrations include San Francisco, California and New York City, New York in the United States, Vancouver, British Columbia and Toronto, Ontario in Canada as well as Sydney, Australia and Wellington, New Zealand to name a few.
To learn more about China read my article called, The Geography and Modern History of China here at Geography at About.com.