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The beginner’s guide to Chinese New Year traditions, etiquette, and superstitions

With its festive cheers and unparalleled exuberance, Chinese New Year is one festival that demands all of your energy, and appetite!

By Eliza Juliet Tay |
Chinatown Chinese New Year

Chinese New Year (also known as Lunar New Year or Spring Festival) with its bright colours, is considered to be the most important event in Chinese calendar. It is marked by the arrival of spring and celebrates the end of one Chinese zodiac, and the beginning of the next.

It's also the time where you gather with your family and friends and stuff yourself silly with snacks and goodies. There's a lot to Chinese New Year to know and learn about, from the legends to the traditions and etiquette, here's your comprehensive guide before we usher in the Year of the Pig. 

RECOMMENDED: The ultimate ang pao guide for Chinese New Year and where to donate clothes, books, furniture and toys in Singapore

Traditions and Etiquette

Justin Lim/Unsplash

The legend

The reason for this festival all began with the legend of Nian – an ancient beast that terrorised villagers, ate crops, livestock, and sometimes even children. When the villagers realised that the beast was of half bull with a lion head, they learned of its weakness: the colour red, fire, and loud noises. With that knowledge, the Nian was defeated. As such, the tradition of wearing red, lighting fireworks, and the lion dance during the new year was born. 

chinese new year, lantern

Red is the colour

During the New Year season, it is a common sight to see a sea of red. With vibrant clothing, scarlet packets, and crimson lanterns and banners with touches of gold accents, red is undoubtedly the colour of the season. This is because the colour red is considered to bring good luck and fortune to all. Up till today, traditional touches can still be seen on modern styles with distinctive Chinese features from qipaos and cheongsams, to decorations and ang baos.

Chinese New Year, Lion Dance

The mandatory lion dance

Although fireworks are banned in Singapore, you can still catch dozens of lion dance performances all around town. These highly skilled dancers dressed in red and gold topped with the head of a lion, give high-energy filled performances to the beat of traditional drums. If you are having a stroll around orchard road, expect to hear the sound of a gong and cheers from time to time.

Chinese New Year menus

Reunited and it feels so good

Another common tradition is for families and friends to gather and have reunion dinners. These dinners are typically held on the eve of the New Year. Though oranges, pineapple tarts, bakkwa, love letters, and many more are the perfect snacks, steamboat dishes are the heart of the meal. By tossing the Yusheng (also known as lohei) - a type of fish salad - and exclaiming prosperous wishes, it is believed that the higher the salad is tossed, the more abundance and auspiciousness you bring to your life and those around you. So, toss high and get the table messy! Just don’t forget to roll up your sleeves.

Chinese New Year

It's 'Bai Nian' time

The first thing one does during Chinese New Year is to 'bai nian' which is to greet and wish each other luck. Then let's get down to business. A traditional gift during Chinese New Year is the exchanging of a pair of mandarin oranges and the giving of red packet containing an even amount of money. Unmarried adults and children receive these red packets from married family members and friends in exchange of wishing them good health and fortune. 

Chinese New Year

Hanging with the fam

With all the festivities happening during the season, it can be quite overwhelming with the CNY prep. So it's good to remember that CNY is the time for families to get closer and bond. The most important thing is the time spent with family and friends to share blessings of good fortune and welcome in the year ahead with the ones who matter most. 


Chinese New Year - Avoid black and white clothing

Avoid black and white clothing

Monochrome fashion may look chic, but Chinese New Year is all about bright colours - mainly red. Wearing black and white is traditionally associated with mourning, so avoid wearing them, especially on the first day of the new year. So, inject some colour into your wardrobes with clothing piece and accessories like red belts or red shoes to welcome in the year with an auspicious start.

Chinese New Year - Don't sweep the floor

Don’t sweep the floor on Chinese New Year

Remember to finish all your cleaning up before the start of Chinese New Year because sweeping and taking out the trash symbolises the sweeping away of wealth and fortunes or dumping out the goodluck from the house.

Chinese New Year - Don't wash/cut hair

Don’t wash/cut hair

In Chinese culture, one’s head is associated with the beginning. In the Chinese language, hair (头发) has the same character as fa in facai (发财) which means “to become wealthy”. To cut or wash your hair is seen as washing away one’s fortune and luck. Some even go to the extreme of not showering altogether to retain their luck.

Chinese New Year - Don't speak negatively

Don’t speak negatively

Be careful what you say during this time because the chinese believe that whatever is said in the beginning of the year sets the precedent for the year ahead. Foul language, speaking negatively, or words like “die” will get you disapproving looks. Combat this with well wishes of fortune and health to your relatives for a more auspicious start.

Chinese New Year - Staying up all night

Staying up all night

Staying up late on the eve of Chinese New Year is said to bring longevity to one’s parents. The later you stay up, the longer they will live. In some households, children even stay up through the night - but not in the dark. Instead, switching on all the lights at home is believed to bring good luck and prosperity into the house as it represents a bright year ahead and chases away the bad luck from the previous year.

Want more festivities?

Things to do

The best Chinese New Year events in Singapore 2019

Besides filling your bellies with delectable Chinese dishes from all those reunion dinners and visiting your relatives from every part of the city, fill your CNY calendar with more gorgeous sights and sounds, colourful parades, lion dances, illuminated lanterns and stunning fireworks displays. Here are the ones we're taking our loved ones for a visit. RECOMMENDED: Guide to Chinese New Year


8 restaurants to celebrate Chinese New Year in Singapore

Mum too swamped to cook up reunion dinner for the family this Chinese New Year? Have no fear, pen cai-loving people. We've rounded up eight Lunar New Year feasts from traditional Chinese at old school joints to modern Asian dishes at hip joints putting their own spin on that classics. Here's where to go to celebrate Chinese New Year with friends and family to start the year of the pig on the right note – huat ah! RECOMMENDED: The ultimate guide to Chinese New Year in Singapore and the best Chinese New Year events in Singapore

Things to do

The ultimate guide to Chinatown

Busy, noisy, filled with people, that’s the general consensus of the Chinatowns of the world. Singapore’s is no different, but ours (perhaps we’re biased) has a charming air about it that appeals to both tourists and locals. A good mix of hawker fare and swish eateries, history and architecture, Chinatown is a riot of colour and things to see and do. RECOMMENDED: 101 best things to do in Singapore and guide to getting around Singapore 


The best Chinese New Year events for kids

Head to Chinatown and you'll be treated to massive lanterns, adorable pig-themed decorations and lion dances which can only mean that Chinese New Year festivities are in full swing. But Chinatown isn't the only place that's celebrating the Year of the Pig. Singapore is dotted with plenty of kid-friendly things to do, see and enjoy with the whole fam. After all, it's all about being together with your family. Gather the brood for these events that won't leave you feeling boar-ed. RECOMMENDED: Guide to Chinese New Year in Singapore and the best Chinese New Year events in Singapore