The Chinese New Year is based on the first day of the Chinese Lunar Calendar, so it varies from year to year against the Gregorian calendar, but always falls within January 21st and February 20th. The Chinese New Year also heralds the changing of the guard for the Chinese horoscopes, with each Lunar year falling under the influence of one of the zodiac animals.
The Chinese word for the New Year is Guo Nian which means to ‘overcome Nian’. So, who is Nian? According to mythology, he was a horrible demon creature who lived in the mountains, and for most of the year he stayed there, hibernating. On the first day of the year, Nian would awake, and go down to the village below. He would eat all of the crops and livestock, leaving nothing for the villagers, and any people that were caught outside on the day of his visit would also be eaten by the monster. The villagers were terrified by Nian, and on the night before the New Year they would board up their homes and remain hiding, while Nian rampaged through their village.
One year as all the villagers were preparing for Nian’s visit, an old man appeared. He asked the people why they didn’t fight the demon together, rather than all hiding alone. The villagers said that they were unable to defeat Nian; they had tried and lost bitterly.
The old man told them to run away to the hillside, and not to return until the following day. While the villagers thought the old man was crazy, they did as he said, and retreated to the mountains to hide.
The old man knew the Nian was easily frightened, so he covered the village in red paper, and made firecrackers out of bamboo. As the demon approached, the old man began to set off his firecrackers, and beat drums to scare and confuse Nian.
The demon was frightened by all the noise and chaos, not realizing that the village was empty apart from the old man. Nian did as any smart demon would do; he fled back to his cave.
When the villagers returned the following day, they were surprised to see the old man still alive, smiling happily, with their food stores and livestock intact. They thought the old man must be a god to have achieved such a thing.
The old man showed the villagers how he defeated Nian, and now on New Years Day the red paper symbols and firecrackers are used to ward off Nian, (there’s even a lion dance too, but that’s another story, for another day).
So, for those of you celebrating, Happy New Years from us. And if you have any firecrackers, light them up to ward off Nian.