Last week, at a fully-booked event, Friends were privileged to be given insight to the traditions surrounding Chinese New Year.

It was impossible not to get caught up in the warmth and enthusiasm of the 9 presenters (who were both locally based and from Xi’an), as they explained various aspects of the Chinese New Year.

Chinese New Year is said to have originated during the Shang Dynasty 1766 BC-1166 BC, and celebrations in various forms have existed since that time.  When the actual New Year takes place, depends upon the Lunar calendar (hence the term ‘Lunar New Year’), with celebrations taking place somewhere between 25 January and 25 February.  The festival takes place for 16 days from New Years’ Eve to the 15th day – the Lantern Festival.  The presentation at Te Papa last week actually occurred on New Years’ Day.  Celebratory traditions can change from people to people over time.

There are 3 aspects to Chinese New Year Celebrations:

New Years’ Eve: the tradition is for people to celebrate with their own families. In relation to this, reference was made to the Great Migration, where approximately 285 million people in China are said to travel to be with their families for New Years’ Eve celebrations.  There was a certain amount of mirth from the audience when they heard about the social and emotional pressures young people often have to endure at these family gatherings, as they are interrogated by their families: ‘do you have a boyfriend/girlfriend?”;  ‘when are you getting married?’;  “when are you having a baby?”

Food is important at this time, and there is much food preparation beforehand.  There are traditional foods in different areas e.g. dumplings are important in the north, and seafood and rice in the south. Families stay up to celebrate throughout the night, or at least until midnight.  Fireworks/fire crackers are let off at midnight to scare off evil spirits. Ceremonies are held to pay tribute to ancestors who spiritually never leave the family.  It is also a time to honour household and heavenly deities.

New Years’ Day: this is a time for communal celebrations, and also a time to have fun.  It is when you have said ‘goodbye’ to the old days, and are embarking on a new spiritual beginning.  It is customary for families to have given their homes a thorough cleaning in the days leading up to New Years’ Day: furniture is dusted and floors are swept, sweeping away bad luck from last year, in preparation for the New Year.

There is a festive scarlet and gold décor in homes and streets, as red is associated with good fortune. On New Years’ Day people wear brand new clothes, the symbol of making a new beginning for the New Year.

Lantern Festival: This occurs at the end of the Chinese New Year celebrations.  Lanterns are made to celebrate New Year.  There are a lot of community activities to celebrate the lantern Festival.  Extra lighting decorates the cities.

Chinese New Year in Wellington has been publicly celebrated here since 2002 initially to help preserve Chinese culture for New Zealand-born Chinese, but also to share the celebrations with other New Zealanders.

A charming, informative evening.

Thank you to Yiyan (Victoria University), Sue and Fan (Te Papa hosts), Rebecca and Chunxiao  (Confucius Institute), Xufei and Ja (interns from Xi’an), Linda (Chinese New Year Celebrations Council, Wellington).

Diana Halsted

Friends of Te Papa Committee