Discover and Celebrate the Chinese New Year

Spring into Chinese New Year with a look at the history, food, and traditions associated with this holiday.

By Cathy Neushul

Colorful chinese lanterns

The Chinese New Year, also called the Spring Festival, is an interesting subject for students of all ages to explore. Celebrations centering around this holiday are based on a rich and interesting cultural tradition. Chinese New Year is about rebirth and liberation, which is symbolized through the food, traditions, and celebrations. 

Unlike new year celebrations in the United States, Chinese New Year lasts for more than one day. Traditionally, it is celebrated for fifteen days. In discussing this holiday with your class, you can talk about the history of Chinese New Year, the food served as part of its celebration, and the unique festivities. 

Celebrating the Historic Legend

The traditions associated with this holiday, such as the lighting of fireworks, have been connected to a myth about a monster named Nian. According to the Chinese legend, the monster would come down from his hilltop lair on the fifteenth of each month to hunt local villagers. Nian terrorized the inhabitants of the area until a wise man gave them some advice. He told them to hang up red paper cutouts and scrolls to repel the monster. He also suggested making loud noises like setting off fireworks to scare the monster away from the village. On the coldest night of the year, the villagers set this plan into motion. Legend has it, it worked! They successfully rid the land of Nian.

While not quite as fascinating as the myth, it seems that the true origin of the holiday lies in a celebration of the end of winter and the beginning of spring. In the days prior to celebrating the new year, the Chinese people can be found performing a spring cleaning. They dispose of broken items, thoroughly clean and scrub every room, and sweep the dirt out the door. This tradition is meant to rid the house of huiqi (inauspicious breaths). Some families might even bring in a troupe of lion dancers to ring in the new year and rid their house of evil spirits. 

Celebrating the New Year with Food

One of the most important ways the Chinese celebrate the new year is through the preparation of special foods. Families gather to share a whole chicken or fish, with the head and other parts intact, to symbolize family togetherness. Noodles are also cooked and eaten whole to symbolize long life. Other traditional Chinese New Year foods include spring rolls, dumplings, mandarin oranges, and taro cakes. Dumplings are shared at midnight of the new year.

A simple and tasty appetizer, dumplings can be shared in the classroom as part of your Chinese New Year celebration. Students can try a variety of dumplings, dipping them in the traditional soy sauce and garlic mix prior to eating. You could either have your class make the dumplings, thereby practicing skills such as following a recipe and measuring (recipe). Or, you can buy dumplings from the frozen section of your supermarket. Either way works, it's a matter of how much time you have to devote to this unit. 

Celebrating the New Year with the Dragon Dance 

One of the most colorful and interesting traditions observed during the celebration of the Chinese New Year is the Dragon Dance. This dance is performed with drums and cymbals, and is part of an effort to ward off evil spirits. If you look online, you can find many examples of dragon dances performed in countries throughout Asia and the United States. You can share a selection of these videos with your class to demonstrate the different ways this dance is performed. To extend the lesson, consider having learners compare and contrast two of the dances you watch as a class. They can discuss their findings, prepare an essay, or make a T-chart with their findings. 

Celebrating the New Year with the Lantern Festival

Another tradition observed during Chinese New Year is the Lantern Festival. This festival is celebrated on the fifteenth (the last day) of the festival. Traditionally, people light red paper lanterns to symbolize releasing of the past and starting anew. The lanterns nowadays can be quite intricate and are often shaped to represent animals. Just as with the Dragon Dances, you can find many examples of the Lantern Festival and its unique lanterns online. The images of the lanterns, often floating up into the air, are mesmerizing.

You can use these suggestions for discussing the Chinese New Year in your classroom to help your students better understand this holiday. 

Celebrate Chinese New Year with these Additional Lessons 

Our Friends in the East

Use this lesson as a great way to provide a detailed look at the Chinese New Year. There are a variety of links to supplementary material and a comprehensive overview. It also discusses the ways Chinese people throughout the world celebrate the holiday.

Chinese New Year’s Day

This resource provides a great way to review information pupils have learned about Chinese New Year. After participating in an overview of the topic, they can complete this activity in groups. You will discover a variety of topics for further discussion.

Chinese New Year

While just a worksheet, this is an easy way to help pupils review the information they have learned about Chinese New Year. Once they have filled out the information, they can discuss their favorite aspect of the holiday.

Chinese Lantern Festival

Scholars compare and contrast Chinese New Year and new year celebrations throughout the world. This could be used to help pupils delve deeper into the ways different people celebrate the new year.