Public holidays in China are vastly different to those in the West. Chinese holidays typically reflect a tradition or an event of cultural significance. Celebrations like Christmas and (the Georgian calendar’s) New Year's Eve are hardly observed at all. Instead, most Chinese holidays follow the lunar calendar, which dictates numerous days of significance throughout the year. Here we list the five biggest holidays in China, what they mean and how they’re celebrated.
Lunar New Year
Lunar New Year, also known as the Spring Festival (春节- Chūn Jié), is the largest and most widely celebrated event in China. The holiday falls on the first day of the Lunar Calendar, in January or February, with celebrations continuing for the full week proceeding. Traditionally, the event saw deities and ancestors honored with the colour red, which is associated with wealth and joy in China. During Spring Festival, Chinese people traditionally wear red clothing, decorate their windows and walls with red paper motifs, perform dragon dances and hand out money-stuffed red envelopes known as hong bao.
Today the event is marked by a week-long public holiday, during which Chinese people often travel all across the country to gather and celebrate with family. The public holiday starts on the Eve of the Lunar New Year, with the day in a typical Chinese household consisting of a reunion dinner and a televised viewing of the CCTV Spring Festival Gala, a colorful TV event that began in 1983. During the following week Chinese people will engage in a number of traditions, such as praying to different deities for blessings, lighting firecrackers to ward off evil spirits, visiting family and friends and gifting hong bao.
Of all holidays in the Chinese calendar, Spring Festival has the largest social and economic impact. Businesses are often closed for the entire break, and new projects may be delayed until after the New Year for greater blessings.
China’s Lantern Festival (元宵节 - Yuān Xiāo Jié) is another holiday early in the Lunar Calendar, falling on the 15th day after the Lunar New Year, around February and March. The Festival is said to have begun more than 2,000 years ago during the Han Dynasty. Chinese people visited temples to pray for the prosperity of their family and the nation, and lit paper lanterns to honour deities and gods.
Today, such customs remain. In addition, the eating sticky rice balls known as (汤圆 tāng yuán) and the solving of wordplay riddles attached to lanterns known as (灯谜 dēng mí) are also popular activities. As this is the first celebration after Spring Festival, the Lantern Festival is symbolic of greeting the New Year with family and celebrating unity and togetherness. During the festival lantern parades are held across cities in China, with the celebrations usually lasting late into the night.
Dragon Boat Festival
The Dragon Boat Festival (端午节Duān Wǔ Jié) is an annual Chinese holiday celebrating loyalty and filial piety - the act of respecting and honoring parents and elders. The holiday takes place on the 5th day of the 5th month of the lunar calendar, around May or June. The origins of the event are said to date back 2,000 years. While there are many myths and legends about how the tradition of racing dragon boats and throwing rice balls into water came about, the best-known story is that of Qū Yuán (屈原), a poet who lived in 300BC. Unable to face the usurpation of his homeland by a neighbouring kingdom, Qu Yuan is said to have thrown himself into a river in a sacrificial protest. The town’s people raced after his body in boats, but when he was nowhere to be found, they resorted to throwing sticky rice into the river. Apparently the idea was that the fish would eat the rice instead of the beloved poet’s body. This is said to be how dragon boat racing and sticky rice dumplings (粽子-zòng zi) came about .
In modern-day China and beyond, the Dragon Boat Festival is often used by businesses to host annual retreats and team building events. In the spirit of building a strong and loyal corporate culture, dragon boat racing, camping and other outdoor activities are often hosted by businesses during this time. The eating and sharing of zòng zi is still perceived as a symbol of luck and good fortune. Unlike the other family-focused holidays, the Dragon Boat Festival is observed to a lesser extent internationally, with the majority of celebrations remaining in mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
The Mid-Autumn Festival (中秋节 Zhōng Qiū Jié) is China’s annual harvest festival, falling on the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar, around September and October. The festival originated as way of celebrating a good harvest and praying to deities for more of the same. The moon, a symbol of rejuvenation, is worshiped on this day. It is believed that the moon is at its roundest on the day of the festival, signifying togetherness and unity. The tradition of sharing moon cakes - sweet pies that usually contain a complete egg yolk at their center - also represents the moon, the coming together of family, and working together for a good harvest.
The Mid-Autumn Festival remains one of the most celebrated holidays throughout Asia. The tradition of giving moon cakes has been heavily commercialized, even in the West. The festival is largely celebrated as an outdoor reunion event, with moon gazing, lantern parades and family picnics galore. Cities around the world with large Chinese populations will often host celebratory events on this day.
The National Day (国庆节 Guó Qìng Jié) festival is the longest public holiday break in China following the Lunar New Year. The event celebrates the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on Oct. 1, 1949. Since 1999, October 1st has kicked off what is known as Golden Week - a national holiday primarily focused on shopping and aiding the domestic tourism industry. The rationale was that while Spring Festival is also a week long, the customs of family reunion and other traditions do not allow for an extended period of leisure and recreation.
Golden Week is when most Chinese people embark on their annual vacation or partake in extended periods of leisure. Most shops stay open and host big sales to satisfy an increasing appetite for discretionary spending. As a result, the economic significance of the National Day Golden Week has grown, with the holiday being one of the largest concentrated periods of consumerism within China. You’ll also find top domestic tourist spots like the Great Wall of China absolutely mobbed during this period. Go to there at your peril!
Besides these top five, there are a number of other holidays of social significance in China, including Tomb Sweeping Day and Double Ninth Festival, both of which follow the lunar calendar. Other days of note include contemporary events such as Labour Day, the Communist Party and army anniversary days, and the highly-popular Double Eleven Singles Day. The vast number of unique holidays and celebrations closely reflects the rich history of China. While historical holidays will remain a core fixture of the yearly celebrations, the development and growth of China and its economy will no doubt give rise to even more events worthy of celebrating in coming years.
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