Lunar New Year

Why Do We Stay Up All Night? And Other Chinese New Year Mysteries, Explained.

From wearing red underwear to exchanging oranges, here are the reasons behind Chinese New Year superstitions.
February 9, 2021, 6:04am
chinese new year, lunar new year, cny, traditions, taboo, superstition, mandarin orange, red, spring cleaning, cut hair
Collage: VICE / Images: Unsplash and Rawpixel

Chinese New Year, also known as Spring Festival in mainland China, is one of the most important holidays in Asia. It’s typically a week-long feast and this year, it starts on Feb. 12.

While it may look a little different this year because of the pandemic, with celebrations moving to virtual spaces, age-old traditions remain very much alive. Countries like South Korea, Vietnam, and Mongolia have their own Lunar New Year traditions, but Chinese cultures mostly share the same set of customs. Superstitions like not cutting your hair or sweeping the floor are perplexing to those who don’t celebrate, yet so par for the course for those who do, that many don’t even know the reason behind them. In fact, they’re rooted in traditional customs all aimed towards good luck and prosperity. 

So, ahead of all the celebrations, VICE looked into the most intriguing Chinese New Year traditions, to explain how they’ve settled comfortably into our festive habits.

Why do we celebrate the Lunar New Year in February?

Let’s address the elephant in the room. We’re already two months into 2021 — why are we only celebrating the new year now? Lunar New Year falls somewhere between Jan. 21 and Feb. 20, though the exact date varies year by year. Traditional festivals, such as Chinese New Year and the Mid-Autumn Festival, follow the Chinese calendar, a lunisolar calendar where every month is marked by a new lunar cycle. The date on which Lunar New Year falls every year is determined by astronomical patterns — typically falling on the second new moon after the December solstice.

Why do we wear red?

chinese new year, lunar new year, cny, traditions, taboo, superstition, mandarin orange, red, spring cleaning, cut hair

Photo: RODNAE Productions, Pexels

Red has long been an auspicious color in Chinese culture. It represents success and celebration. The festive color is also believed to ward off evil — tracing its roots to a folk legend about Nian, a mythical beast who was terrified by anything red. Some who are concerned about their fortune in the new year, even wear red underwear for good luck. Note: some believe that, for the red underwear to work its magic, it has to be gifted by others.

Besides red, any brightly colored clothing is usually welcome for Chinese New Year festivities. On the other hand, people usually steer clear of black and white, as these colors are traditionally associated with death and mourning.

Why can’t we sweep the floor, even if it’s dirty?

On the first day of the new year, at least, people do not sweep the floor or clean the house, for fear that this would cause good luck to be swept away. People also postpone taking out the garbage for the first few days of the new year, since this act symbolizes good luck being thrown away. In fact, house chores are generally avoided during Chinese New Year celebrations, since it’s seen as a foreshadowing of the hard work one would have to do in the year ahead.

This means that all the tidying has to be done ahead of the new year — spring cleaning before the new year is often a no-nonsense ritual in Asian households, as families buckle down to dust the bad luck of the past year away.

But the compulsive purging also reveals irresponsible discarding habits — the abandoning of bulky trash items and even pets experience an unfortunate spike each spring cleaning season.

Why can’t we cut our hair?

Similar to the custom of not cleaning during the new year, the washing and cutting of hair is also generally avoided. Some think that since the Mandarin pronunciation for hair (fa) is associated with the phrase “getting rich” (facai), cutting your hair is like snipping away your good fortune. Another explanation is that long hair is a traditional symbol of longevity, and cutting your hair bodes ill for your lifespan. So, if you’re thinking of looking fresh for Chinese New Year celebrations, stop procrastinating getting your hair cut.

Why can’t we sleep on Chinese New Year’s Eve?

According to traditional Chinese belief, staying up on Lunar New Year’s Eve brings longevity to parents — the longer you can stay awake, the longer your parents will live. This often translates to an act of filial piety that is also rooted in fear and guilt. Can you imagine the horror of falling asleep early on New Year’s Eve?

Why do we keep exchanging oranges with one another?

chinese new year, lunar new year, cny, traditions, taboo, superstition, mandarin orange, red, spring cleaning, cut hair

Photo: Koh Ewe

Mandarin oranges are a symbol of wealth, it’s vivid orange hue fitting for vibrant New Year festivities. A key element in Chinese New Year decorations, mandarin oranges are exchanged in pairs — for double the luck — between friends and family as a festive greeting.

On the other end of the auspicious fruit spectrum is the pear, which is seen as a taboo fruit during New Year celebrations. In Mandarin, “pear” (li) has the same pronunciation as “parting,” and gifting pears implies farewell — not very auspicious for the Lunar New Year.