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. February 10 marks the end of the Year of the Dragon and the beginning of the Year of the Snake.
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).
Water and Wisdom
Buddha announced that people born in each animal's year would have some of that animal's personality. If you were born in 1941, 1953, 1965, 1977, 1989 or 2001, you were born in the Year of the Snake.
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, 2013, is considered the year of the black, or water, snake.
Some people consider the snake bad luck because it is a sly, sneaky animal. But the snake is also a symbol of wisdom and grace. Ancient Chinese wisdom says a Snake in the house is a good sign because it means your family will be cared for. People born in a year of the snake are seen as great thinkers that are good at business. They are said to get along best with people born in the year of the Ox or Rooster.
Festivals, Lions and Feasts
Lunar New Year's Eve is celebrated with family gatherings and festivals. Cities celebrate the 15-day New Year season with firecrackers and fireworks. But this year, officials are asking that celebrations in Beijing, China, use fewer fireworks because of a pollution problem. Last month, Beijing’s pollution hit a record high. It was 30-45 times above recommended safety levels. The thick pollution forced people indoors and made it hard to fly airplanes. Officials want to limit fireworks during the holiday this year to avoid blackening the skies with more thick smoke.
People in China can still celebrate the holiday with other traditionals. One of the most popular ways 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. The celebrations end with the Lantern Festival, when brightly colored lamps are hung in parks around China.