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Chinese New Year 2019: a brief guide

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Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Happy Chinese New Year, 2019! February 5 is the first day in China's traditional lunar calendar and is the country's most important holiday. People gather with their extended families for a big meal the night before, party on the streets, set off fireworks, and decorate everything in red. Think of it as a combination of Thanksgiving and New Year's Eve.

The traditions behind it, however, are very different — and really interesting. In addition to the fireworks, Chinese New Year also features a dragon dance and decorating everything in red. This has to do with a Chinese folk legend about a monster plaguing a town, explained really nicely in a video from the English-language operation of CCTV (China's state broadcaster) embedded below.

In the myth, a small group of villagers fought off the Nian (a big monster) by making loud noises and putting up red decorations. The only way to keep it away is to do the same thing every year, which explains many of the Chinese New Year traditions. The Chinese name for New Year's itself — guo nian — means "crossing the Nian."

Of course, the historical origins of Chinese New Year are a little different. The lunar calendar, which dates back to around 3000 BC, was originally derived to help farmers keep track of important planting events. The way things worked out, the Lunar New Year (which can fall on different days on the Gregorian calendar) was the best day for farmers to take a break.

"Through centuries of China’s agrarian tradition, [New Year's Day] was the one period when farmers could rest from their work in the fields," the East Asia Institute at Columbia University's guide to the holiday explains. As a result, families spread out across the rather large country took the opportunity to gather and celebrate.

This agricultural holiday grew a set of associated traditions, including the myth of the Nian, "lucky" foods like peanuts and lotus seeds, and a home cleaning ritual. In 1912, China officially adopted the Gregorian calendar — marking January 1 as the New Year and renaming Chinese New Year, and the celebrations before and after it, "Spring Festival." But the nomenclature hardly matters: Chinese New Year is still celebrated around the country, and among the worldwide Chinese diaspora.

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