Millions of people across China crowded onto trains and buses this week, hurrying home to be with their families for the country's most important holiday, Lunar New Year, or Spring Festival. January 31 marks the end of the Year of the Snake and the beginning of the Year of the Horse.
More than one billion people worldwide celebrate Lunar New Year. In China, people from Beijing to Guangzhou enjoy a holiday. Businesses and government offices are closed. Many people go to temples to pray for good fortune.
History of the Holiday
The Lunar New Year is celebrated at the second new moon after the winter solstice. The winter solstice, which falls around December 21, is one of two times of the year when the sun is at its greatest distance from the equator. It is also the shortest day of the year.
According to an ancient legend, Buddha asked all the animals to meet him on Lunar New Year. Twelve animals came, and Buddha named a year after each one. The animals were the Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Boar (or Pig).
Wealth and Good Luck
Buddha announced that people born in each animal's year would have some of that animal's personality. If you were born in 1942, 1954, 1966, 1978, 1990, or 2002, you were born in the Year of the Horse.
The animals are also linked with the five elements—wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. Each element has a color: green for wood, red for fire, brown for earth, white for metal, and black for water. This year, 2014, is considered the year of the green horse.
People who were born in the year of the horse are believed to be brave, cheerful, and filled with luck and strength. They are said to get along best with people born under the year of the Tiger, Goat, or Dog. The year of the horse is considered a fortunate year that brings good luck and wealth. But according to Chinese philosophy, those born under the horse sign may have a difficult year in 2014. They are advised not to make important life decisions until 2015.
Festivals, Lions, and Feasts
Lunar New Year's Eve is celebrated with family gatherings and festivals. Cities traditionally mark the 15-day New Year season with firecrackers and fireworks. Last year, officials asked that celebrations in Beijing, China, use fewer fireworks because of a pollution problem. Officials wanted to avoid blackening the skies with more thick smoke. This year, a ban on fireworks will likely be in effect.
At the festivals, one of the most popular ways to celebrate is with the lion dance. The lion is considered a holy animal. During celebrations, dancers dressed as lions (or holding up elaborate paper lions) perform. The dancers are supposed to bring good luck to the people they visit at their homes or businesses. People often wear red, which symbolizes fire. Legend has it that fire can drive away bad luck. It is also tradition for households to carefully clean the house to sweep away bad fortune and make room for good luck. The celebrations end with the Lantern Festival, when brightly colored lamps are hung in parks around China.