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Chinese New Year

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Chinese New Year or the Spring Festival is the largest celebration in Chinese culture. It more than just one day: in fact it is a period of 15 days — beginning with the new moon on the first day of the Chinese calendar and finishing with the full moon of the same month. The Chinese calendar is a mix of lunar and solar calendars, so like the date of Easter in the West, the date of the Chinese New Year varies (for example, 7-22 February in 2008).

The day before New Year, chúxī, 除夕, it is customary for the family to gather at the grandparents' house, the grandfather being the head of the household. The house must be cleaned and decorated. Banners promoting good fortune and health are placed around the doors of houses. The word fu, 福, is put on the door and windows: this is said to bring good luck to the house. It is common for it to be put upside down on some doors making a pun in Chinese. The phrase Fu dao 福到 means 'luck arrives'. The word dao 到 has the same pronunciation as the word 倒 which means 'upside down'. Another similar pun is found in the tradition of fish in decorations and in the food of this day. The word for fish (yu) is similar in pronunciation to another word for 'enough' or 'plenty'. By eating fish you are in a way 'eating plenty'. This is a good omen for the new year. Decorations usually feature the colour red as this is an auspicious colour. Other red items will be used for decoration including dried chili peppers or oranges. If the new year's zodiac sign matches your birth sign, it is traditional to wear red clothing. The family will have two meals together on this day, one in the early afternoon, the other beginning on the stroke of midnight. The later meal usually consists of Chinese dumplings (jiaozi). Prior to the meals, large numbers of firecrackers are set off. It is believed that the spirits are scared away by the loud noise. At midnight, the doors and windows of the house will be opened to allow the old year to escape and the new year to come in. The family will all sleep in the grandparents' home on this night.

On New Year's Day, no cleaning should be done. This would sweep all the good luck out of the house. The day after, the floors may be swept but the dust is not removed from the house for a further five days. No knives or scissors should be used on New Year's Day as they would cut out good fortune. Also one should not wash one's hair on this day. Many people will not eat meat either, as abstaining is supposed to prolong life. Throughout New Year, honour must be paid to the ancestors. Either on this day or the second day of the new year, prayers are made to the gods to satisfy the ancestors. On the third and fourth days of the new year, husbands take their families to pay respects to their wife's parents.

The New Year celebrations end with the Lantern Festival at time of the full moon. Again, large numbers of firecrackers are set off to drive out the bad spirits of the old year and bring good fortune to the new year.

The Chinese years are named after the animals of the Chinese zodiac. Like the western zodiac, there are 12 signs. These are in order: mouse (or rat), ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog and pig. The year 2007 was the Year of the Pig, 2008 is that of the Mouse and 2009 will be the Year of the Ox.