Posted by: Sam Olsen | February 7, 2012

Chinese New Year: decorations and origins

Although it’s all over, we didn’t show you any of the red and gold decorations  that are absolutely everywhere. These particular examples are from our block but are rather mundane compared to elsewhere.


Nian ain't getting in here


BTW this is the story of how Chinese New Year started (it’s for kids so don’t feel too dumbed down)

Long ago, in Han times, there was a monster whose name was “Nian“. This monster came once each year to a little village and scared everyone! One day, just by luck, the villagers discovered that “Nian” had a couple fears of his own. He was afraid of the colour red and even more afraid of scary loud noises! 

The villagers prepared. When “Nian” appeared, everyone in the village ran for the red banners and noise makers they had made. They waved their banners and rattled their noise makers.

 This scared “Nian” so much that “Nian” ran away and was never heard from again!

Which all goes to explain why people in China believe the colour red signifies joy and luck, and why noise makers are rattled on Chinese New Year. 

At midnight, firecrackers, paper dragons, noise makers, the waving of red ribbons and banners all help to drive away any lingering evil spirits from the old year. (In case “Nian” is still lurking about somewhere!)


And here is the grown up version:


The Orgin of New Years and the legend of Nian

The Chinese word Nian means ripe grains.  The word dates back to oracle bone inscriptions dating back three thousand years ago.  A good harvest or the process of a harvest was considered a year.  The whole purpose, in history, of creating a calendar or keeping track of time was to facilitate agriculture.  It was important to know when to till the soil and sow the seeds.  You can say that the first calendar in China was sort of put together for the benefit of agriculture production.  In the Zhou Dynasty the year was formally called “nian” and the beginning of the year was called “suishou” .  In 104 BC, Emperor Liu Che of the Western Han Dynasty presided over the formulation of the solar lunar calendar which is similar to the Hebrew calendar.

Just as pretty as the decorations in Catford, surely

Since the beginning of the Han Dynasty, New Years Day and Winter Solstice were the emperor’s most important times.  It was the responsibility of the emperor to keep track of the time, to perform traditional rituals before these dates, and tune and select the music so that heaven and earth were in harmony.  Winter Solstice was the most important event because if an emperor blundered that day the kingdom wouldn’t know which day marked the coming of the new year.  These two days are the only days that don’t change on the lunar calendar.

The festival was a way of letting the people know what time it was and what to do. The lunar calendar had all sorts of important days that kept people in tune with their daily rituals and mother nature.  Keep in mind that the emperors did not do everything by themselves and had experts or “officials” to help out, but they were responsible to keep the mandate.  By insuring the accuracy of these dates, the state and the people knew when to work and when to do what (the lunar calendar is like the farmers almanac).

 Besides historical records, there are also many stories and legends worth mentioning.  The  first and most enjoyable is the story of Nian (Year “Nian” as in New Year –”Xin Nian“).  There was a monster in ancient times with a body of a bull and the head of lion.  It was a ferocious animal that lived in the mountains and hunted for a living.  Towards the end of winter when there was nothing to eat it would visit the villages and attack and eat whatever it could.  The villagers would live in terror over the winter.  Over time the villagers realized that the ferocious Nian was afraid of three things: the colour scarlet, fire, and noise.  The villagers came together and agreed that when it was time for Nian’s annual visit towards the end of winter they would start a fire in front of every door, hang a board painted scarlet in front of every house, and not go to sleep but rather make noise.

So one night when Nian was spotted coming down the mountain they started the fires, put up the boards, and stayed up all night long making noises.  The monster came down saw and heard the ruckus, freaked and ran into the mountain never to return.  The next morning everyone got up congratulated each other and had a big celebration.  The next year they repeated the ritual and it has been passed down generation to generation and the custom of guonian was thus established.


Fire, noise and seeing red: just like a Glasgow Hogmanay in other words. 





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