Enjoying EarthSky? Subscribe.

143,401 subscribers and counting ...

By in
| Human World on Feb 18, 2015

Happy Chinese New Year 2015!

This year’s Chinese New Year – February 18-19 – rings in the Year of the Sheep (Goat, Ram). Gong Xi Fa Ca, y’all.

Over a billion people in China and millions around the world are celebrating the first day of the Chinese New Year today. It starts on February 18, 2015 according to calendars in the Western Hemisphere, and February 19 in Asia. It’s the most important of Chinese holidays, kicking off a celebration that lasts for 15 days and culminates with the Lantern Festival. Each year is associated with one of 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac. For 2015, it’s the Year of the Sheep (or Goat or Ram … the Chinese character is the same).

The BBC reports that, in China, hundreds of millions of people have been in the process of traveling home in what is considered “the world’s biggest annual human migration.”

State media says about three billion passenger trips will be made by plane, train and car over the 40-day period.

It is a public holiday in many places with ethnic Chinese populations such as Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia.

The festival is known as Tet in Vietnam and Seollal in South Korea, and is traditionally a time to be with family.

Many countries in Southeast Asia celebrate the Chinese New Year, including China, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. It’s also celebrated in Chinatowns and Asian homes around the world. It’s considered a time to honor deities and ancestors.

There are several variations on the mythology behind Chinese New Year celebrations. Most are based on a ugly bloodthirsty monster named Nian that would emerge on the last night of each year to destroy villages and eat people. A wise elder advised villagers to scare the monster away with loud noises. That night, they set fire to bamboo, lit fireworks, and banged their drums. The monster, afraid of the loud noises and lights, ran away to hide in its cave. In another version of the myth, an old man persuaded Nian to turn its wrath on other monsters, not the villagers. Before he was seen riding away on Nian, the old man, actually a god, advised the people to hang red paper decorations in their homes and set off firecrackers on the last night of the year to keep Nian away.

On the first day of the new year, the villagers celebrated, greeting each other with the words Guo Nian, which mean “survive the Nian.” That tradition that has continued to this day, with Guo Nian now meaning “celebrate the new year.”

Enjoying EarthSky so far? Sign up for our free daily newsletter today!

A woman poses with a sheep display in Hong Kong, which like many cities has put up colorful lunar New Year's decorations.  Image via Agence France-Presse.

A woman poses with a sheep display in Hong Kong, which like many cities has put up colorful lunar New Year’s decorations. Image via Agence France-Presse.

Traditional Chinese New Year Decoration. Image via Fanghong via Wikimedia Commons.

Chinese New Year fireworks in Hong Kong. Image via Kroot via Wikimedia Commons.

In China, the familiar Gregorian calendar is used for day-to-day life. But Chinese calendar dates continue to be used to mark traditional holidays such as the new year and the fall moon festival. It’s also used astrologically to select favorable dates for weddings and other special events.

The Chinese calendar is a lunisolar calendar, in other words, a combination of solar and lunar calendars. It has a long history spanning several Chinese dynastic rules from as far back as the Shang Dynasty around fourteenth century B.C.. There are several different symbolic cycles within the calendar, used in Chinese astrology, that make it an intricate and complex measure of time.

A month in the Chinese calendar spans a single lunar cycle. The first day of the month begins during the new moon, when no sunlight falls on the lunar hemisphere that faces the Earth. A lunar cycle, on average, lasts 29.5 days, so a lunar month can last 29 or 30 days. Usually, there are 12 lunar months in a Chinese calendar year. In order to catch up with the solar calendar, which averages 365.25 days in a year, an extra month is added to the Chinese calendar every two or three years. As a result, Chinese New Year falls on different dates each year (in the Gregorian calendar) between January 21 and February 21.

Chinese New Year red envelopes, used for giving money to children, at Dihua Market, Taipei, Taiwan. Image via BCody80 via Wikimedia Commons.

Each year of the Chinese lunar calendar is represented by one of 12 animal symbols of the Chinese zodiac: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep (Goat), Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Boar. For 2015, it’s the Sheep’s turn. Travelchinaguide.com says of the year of the Sheep:

The sheep (goat, or ram) is among the animals that people like most. It is gentle and calm. Since ancient times, people have learned to use its fleece to make writing brushes and skin to keep warm. As it is white, people describe delicate and precious white jade to be ‘suet jade’. Thus it is close to the meaning of good things.

Celebrities born in the year of the Sheep (Goat, Ram): Michelangelo, Mark Twain, Thomas Alva Edison, Rudolph Valentino, Rachel Carson, Pierre Trudeau, Barbara Walters, Orville Wright, Nicole Kidman, Julia Roberts, Amy Lee, Bruce Willis, Benicio Del Toro, Claire Danes, Jamie Lynn Spears, Matt LeBlanc, Chow Yun-Fat, Zhang Ziyi, Li Shimin (Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty 618 – 907), Cao Cao (King of Wei in China’s Three Kingdoms Period 220 – 280), Yue Fei (a patriotic general in China’s South Song Dynasty 1127 – 1279), Empress Dowager Cixi. Click here for characteristics attributed to those born in the year of the Sheep.

Chinese New Year celebrations traditionally lasts 15 days, from the first day (during a new moon) to the 15th day (the next full moon). Each day holds a special significance that varies according to local traditions. But first, before the arrival of the new year, homes are thoroughly cleaned to sweep away ill fortune, and to welcome good luck. On new year’s eve, there are family gatherings to celebrate and enjoy sumptuous traditional feasts, and to greet the new year with fireworks at midnight.

The 30 best pictures of sheep you’ll ever see

Lantern Festival night in front of the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in Taipei, Taiwan. Image via Philo Vivero via Wikimedia Commons.

In the days that follow, festive dance parades are held featuring colorful dragons or lions, ceremonies are held to pay homage to deities and ancestors, children receive money in red envelopes, gifts are exchanged, extended family members visit each other, and there’s more traditional feasting.

The celebration culminates on the 15th day with the Lantern festival; on this night of the full moon, families mingle in the streets carrying lighted lanterns, often creating a beautiful light display.

Bottom line: The Chinese New Year for 2015 is celebrated on February 18-19. It’s the most important of Chinese holidays, celebrated by billions of people across the world. Festivities traditionally last for 15 days to culminate with the Lantern Festival. This calendar is based on a complex lunisolar calendar system that uses both lunar and solar cycles to mark time. As a result, Chinese New Year falls on different dates each year, between January 21 and February 21 of the conventional Gregorian calendar. Each Chinese lunar year is associated with one of twelve animals in the Chinese zodiac. For 2015, it’s the Year of the Sheep (Goat).

Yin and yang of Saturn’s moon Iapetus