The History Behind Chinese New Year

Updated: Nov. 30, 2023

The Year of the Ox is right around the corner!

Chinese New Year kicks off on February 12th with a 16-day festival celebrating China’s most important holiday. How did it become such a pivotal event? The answer dates back centuries. Where you born during the year of the ox? Find out what your Chinese zodiac sign is.

The holiday originated with the Chinese lunar calendar, which is why you’ll often hear it also referred to as Lunar New Year. According to, the calendar’s existence dates back as early as the 14th century, B.C. during the Shang Dynasty. Unlike the Western calendar, the Chinese calendar shifts—it was reset each time a new emperor took control. Because it is often set according to both lunar phases and the solar solstices, the kick-off to Chinese New Year varies annually.

On average, Chinese New Year starts with the arrival of the new moon that occurs sometime between the end of January and the end of February. It lasts until the Festival of Lanterns, which is when the full moon is in place. This can take about 16 days, which gives everyone plenty of time for celebration.

Traditionally, red envelopes containing money are gifted during the Lunar New Year celebrations, a custom that goes back to ancient times. However, the origin of this tradition varies depending on who you ask. According to the University of California, Irvine, one popular source is the legend of a young orphan who, during the Sung Dynasty, won a battle against a huge demon terrorizing the village of Chain-Chieu. As a reward, the village elders gave the child a red envelope full of money. Whatever the reason, the red envelope is an integral part of Chinese New Year to this day. Here’s how to throw your own Chinese New Year party.

Firecrackers are another big part of Chinese New Year, and on, writer ShaoLan Hsueh shared the story behind this practice: A fairy, disguised as an elderly man, saved a town from a terrible monster by throwing bamboo sticks into a bonfire. The explosions produced by the bamboo scared off the monster. As a result, the firecrackers set off during Chinese New Year celebrations ward off the evil spirits of the past.

Most holidays involve a feast, and Chinese New Year is no different. Dumplings and Nian Gao (or niangao)—a cake made with glutinous rice—are featured parts of new year’s feasts. Not only are dumplings consumed during the festivities, but it’s a family event to make them. The tradition got its start in northern China; now they’re a standard part of the holiday.

Shaped like crescents or spheres, the dumplings are thought to resemble ancient Chinese money and bring good fortune to one’s home. And while people eat Nian Gao year-round, it’s known as Chinese New Year’s Cake. According to Northwest Asian Weekly, a 17th-century Chinese scholar named Liu Tong pointed out that Nian Gao is “a homonym for ‘becoming lofty with high hopes with each year.’” Who doesn’t want to head into a new year with a positive attitude? Next, find out the other lucky foods for your Chinese New Year feast.


Reader's Digest
Originally Published on Reader's Digest