The days between January 27, 2017 and February 11, 2017 are a magical time to visit China trenched in centuries of rich traditions and culture. The Chinese New Year, now known as the Spring Festival, is an ancient lunar holiday dating back to the Shang Dynasty that can last up to fifteen days. Today, it remains a time to gather as a family, relax, and break out traditional symbols and foods. Some annual traditions include setting off firecrackers and giving gifts of money in red envelopes called hong bao to young children and unmarried, unemployed members of the family and .

This year marks the beginning of the Year of the Rooster. If you were born in 1946, 1957, 1969, 1981, 1993 or 2005, this is your year on the Chinese zodiac calendar. The rooster represents fidelity and punctuality. People born under the sign of the rooster are said to be organized, beautiful, kind-hearted, arrogant, self-aggrandizing or persuasive.

The traditional foods of Chinese New Year

Chinese New Year is known as much for its food as its colorful celebrations. Some of the traditional dishes prepared during the two-week celebration include:

  • Tang yuan: Black sesame rice ball or wonton soup
  • Chicken, duck, fish and pork dishes
  • Song gao: A sweet, round cake made of coarsely-ground rice
  • Jiu niang tang: A soup of sweet wine and glutinous rice balls
  • Eight treasures rice: A sweet rice mix that contains dried fruits, date paste and nuts

Be forewarned, some restaurants require reservations months in advance. Perhaps a really terrific travel agent, your hotel concierge or the help desk at the travel insurance company of choice might have some pull to secure a dinner reservation for you.  

Big days on the Chinese New Year Calendar

Chinese New Year is actually a long, multi-faceted celebration. Here are some notable celebrations:

Jan. 27: Spring Festival Eve

Spring Festival Eve is traditionally a time for a great feast for reuniting families. Families will prepare several traditional foodstuffs: fish (for abundance in the new year), lettuce (for energy or vigor), shallots (for wisdom)  celery ( for diligence), as well as chicken and duck. Chicken is symbolic for a great marriage and family get togethers.  Serving a whole bird emphasizes family unity, much like the turkey on Thanksgiving Day in the USA.

Jan. 28: New Year’s Day

On the first day of the Chinese New Year, people visit the senior members of their family and serve tea and sweets, to sweeten the upcoming year. A lot of these treats will be arranged in groups of eight. In Chinese culture, eight is a lucky number, and celebrating with groups of eight is a way of wishing some extra luck into the new year. Sweets are often served on a tray and called the “Tray of Togetherness.”

In the Buddhist tradition, families will also eat a vegetarian dish called jai, with 18 different ingredients.

This is also the day that famous lion dances and dragon dances will occur in the street. These are bright, colorful, percussive performances.   In the old Chinese tradition, lion costumes and loud drums and cymbals were meant to scare off evil spirits. A group of lion dancers usually includes 10 people and one very ornate lion costume with a movable mouth and eyelids. The lion signifies courage, stability and superiority.

Jan. 29-Feb. 2: Spring Festival Golden Week

In China, a “Golden Week” is a weeklong work holiday when factories, warehouses and offices shut down and there is a huge migration of people. It is not an ideal week to travel because, despite efforts, infrastructure to handle mass transit is poor.  There are some political solutions to reschedule or cancel Golden Week, because of this.

There are two Golden Weeks every year, one in October and Spring Festival Golden Week. The week moves annually with the lunar cycle.  This is a time for Chinese people to take time off and be with their families. It’s also a busy time for tickets and tours. If you’re traveling during Golden Week, book early.

Feb. 11: Lantern Festival

The Lantern Festival happens on the last night and marks the end of the Spring Festival period, a new beginning. It marks the return of Spring, symbolizes family reunion, and happens on the first full moon. Most Chinese people cannot celebrate this holiday with families since it does not land on a national holiday.

The Lantern Festival is one of China’s most beautiful and famous celebrations. Lanterns of every shape and size alight all over cities and towns. Lion dances, firecrackers and traditional Chinese games all make appearances on this special day, too. Lighting and appreciating a lantern means illuminating the future and giving birth.  Chinese people enjoy the lanterns that come in many exotic shapes, fish, flowers, animals, even buildings. People try to guess a riddle on the lanterns.  If they think they know the answer, they can take the riddle to the owner and win a small prize.

It’s tradition to eat Tangyuan (Yuanxiao), rice flour dumplings in a ball shape stuffed with a white or brown sugar, rose petals, nuts, seeds and bean paste – or a combination, that are fried, boiled or steamed and served in a fermented rice soup called tianjiu which means sweet liquor.  The round shapes of the dumplings and bowl symbolize togetherness and wholeness.  Chinese people have been eating Tangyuan since the Song Dynasty, 1279.

If you’re traveling in Beijing during the Lantern Festival, check out the Qianmen Shang Yuan Lantern Party. This festival is a throwback to ancient parties held in the very same area. Exhibits of elegant glowing lanterns are on display, and fun riddles and games are available for guests.

Some tips

If you’re going to enjoy the Spring Festival this year, CNN and Chinahighlights.com have some ideas to help you make the most of the experience, avoid stress and stay safe!

  1. Book far in advance. This is a busy travel time for people in China. Rates go up because demand is high.  Hotels and flights fill up quickly. Don’t go standby!
  2. Enjoy fireworks, but from a safe distance. Fireworks are dangerous and can be deadly.
  3. Plan ahead for store and restaurant closures. Like the Christmas holiday season in the United States, a lot of stores will close and send employees home to their families. Stock up on the things you may need in advance.
  4. Avoid rail travel if you can. That’s where the biggest crowd crushes are going to be.
  5. Dress appropriately. China’s a huge place, and you’ll need to do some research on your specific destination to learn something about the weather there.
  6. Be patient and flexible. Like any holiday, this can be a stressful time if you let it.  Add a little time into your schedule and bring a book along for downtime. When things don’t go exactly according to plan, go with the flow.

How to say Happy New Year in Mandarin

China Highlights is a really good resource to help you navigate a rewarding experience.  They publish key phrases with a sounds icon to help you mingle in.  Here are the most popular greetings for Rooster Year 2017:

 

鸡年吉祥  Jínián jíxiáng  Good luck for this Rooster year  
鸡年大吉  Jínián dàjí  Lots of luck for this Rooster year
新年好  Xīnnián hǎo  Happy New Year  
过年好  Guònián hǎo  Happy New Year  
新年快乐  Xīnnián kuàilè  Happy New Year  
新春快乐  Xīnchūn kuàilè  Happy New Spring
春节快乐  Chūnjié kuàilè  Happy Spring Festival  
吉祥如意  jíxiáng rúyì  Good fortune according to your wishes  
年年有余 Niánnián yǒuyú  Surplus year-after-year  
吉星高照  Jíxīng gāozhào  Fortune will smile on you (‘lucky star high shines’)  
心想事成  Xīnxiǎng shì chéng  May all your wishes come true.   
大吉大利  Dàjí dàlì  Lots of luck and profits  

Wherever your New Year begins or takes you, please Depart Smart.  For more travel tips, visit Depart Smart.org.