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Chinese New Year

Throughout history, the Chinese people, both rich and poor, have had a passion for their festivals. Festivals mark the seasons and express the joys, hopes, and fears of the people. They entertain and offer relief and give the opportunity to renew and recreate. From early childhood, the yearly celebrations play an important role in the life of every Chinese person. They are a time of family reunions and a oneness with heaven. Because China is a traditional agricultural society, the most important festivals mark the four seasons: Chinese New Year, Dragon Boat Festival, Mid-Autumn Festival, and Winter Solstice.

The Chinese New Year, now known as the "Spring Festival," is by far the most important festival. It marks the first day of the Chinese lunar year. Legend says that an old man told the people that the great beast Nian, who swallowed people in one bite, could be scared away by the color red. The term Guo Nian or "Survive the Nian" became "Celebrate the New Year." (Guo in Chinese also means "pass over" and "observe.")

Days before the New Year, families give their houses a thorough cleaning (sweeping away all ill fortune and making way for incoming good luck). Doors and windows get newly painted (usually red) and are decorated with paper cuts and couplets. Popular themes are happiness, wealth, longevity, satisfactory marriage, and children. The day before Spring Festival, all members of the family come together to share a sumptuous meal and to stay up through the night to welcome the new year. At midnight, the sky is lit up by fireworks and firecrackers (to scare away Nian), and dragon and lion dances are performed. The next day the family pays veneration to its ancestors and to the gods. Young children receive presents of cash wrapped in red paper, and the family goes door to door greeting relatives and neighbors. The visiting and gift giving continue for several days.

The New Year festivities end on the 15th day with the Lantern Festival. The Chinese have celebrated this festival since the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 221). People carry colorful lanterns and gather in a public place for a "lantern fair." This is also a time to light fireworks and eat glutinous rice dumplings. The round dumplings symbolize family unity and completeness.

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