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Year of the Ox: Chinese New Year Traditions & Design

Employee Experience Ambassador Valerie Williams shares the beauty behind this auspicious holiday.

In the long, dark months of winter, one chapter ends and another begins. A fresh start and a new year. Around the world, this milestone is celebrated with a myriad of rich traditions, time-honored customs, and powerful symbols. One such celebration is happening this week: The Chinese New Year. In anticipation of the festivities on February 12, we asked ATOMIC D Employee Experience Ambassador Valerie Williams to walk us through the beautiful details of this powerful moment.

What exactly is the Chinese New Year celebrating?

Chinese New Year celebrates the beginning of a new year on the traditional Chinese calendar. It is also called Spring Festival (Chūnjié 春節). It's a time of feasting and festivities; celebrating the coming of spring, the renewal of life, the unification of family, and the coming of a new year. It's one of the most important holidays in Chinese Culture. The main festivities span for 15 days. Individuals take their annual trip to travel home.

How and why is each new year given an animal - like this year being the Year of the Ox? The Chinese zodiac (shēngxiào 生肖) is a repeating, 12-year cycle of animal signs and their ascribed attributes, based on the lunar calendar. In order, the zodiac animals are: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, Pig.

The Lunar New Year, or Spring Festival, marks the transition from one animal to the next— 2021 will be a year of the Ox, starting on February 12th and ending on January 31st, 2022.

Based on the traits associated with the Year of the Ox, what should we expect in 2021?

The second of the twelve zodiac signs, the Ox is hardworking and methodical. We think of honesty, persistence, stubbornness. and endurance. Through diligent work comes reward. The Ox might be a good metaphor for what to expect in 2021: we need to be persistent and stay strong while keeping our bodies, relationships, and mind healthy. Ox year is a year to persevere; to focus on our work to push through the challenges of life. In this way, we will gain back our normalcy and community which makes us strong, like an ox.

What are the traditions associated with the holiday?

The Chinese New Year ritual begins a few days before the new year. In Hong Kong, where I grew up, there’s a fun saying, “年廿八,洗邋遢,” meaning a thorough house clean-up on the 28th day of the 12th Lunar Month. It represents sweeping away last year's bad luck (in the form of dirt) to welcome good luck in the new year ahead. There can be many rituals or ceremonies called bai sun 拜神 where offerings like incense are laid out and prayers for a prosperous new year are offered to the gods. There are many traditional foods and decorations. For example bringing home a beautiful and plentiful peach blossom tree (not unlike having a Christmas tree during Christmas time) symbolizes fortune, happiness, and prosperity in the new year.

It is considered polite and appropriate to greet one another with lucky sayings and phrases to wish health, wealth and good fortune:

恭喜发财 (gōng xǐ fā cái) – May you be happy and prosperous

身体健康 (shēn tǐ jiàn kāng) – Wishing you good health

心想事成 (xīn xiǎng shì chéng) – May all your wishes come true

万事如意 (wàn shì rú yì) – May everything go well for you

年年有馀 (nián nián yǒu yú) – Wishing you abundance and prosperity every year

Over the course of these 2 weeks, we go around to visit family and friends from day to night (bai nian 拜年) to celebrate the new year with food and laughter. Red envelopes (lai see 利是 or hóng bāo 紅包) are given to employees, children, and elders as a token of good luck. As a kid, this was a very exciting time to get some money for my piggy bank!

Are there different traditions in different regions of China?

China is a really big country with many regions, but the center of it all is family, and the community is a part of that family. So we share a lot of the same traditions in welcoming the new year/spring with art, food, and positive phrases to bring joy and wish for communal prosperity.

You can see the regional differences mainly with food. For example, in Hong Kong, which is Southern China, we have Turnip cake and a sweet rice cake (Nian gao 年糕). In Northern China, it’s dumplings. In Eastern China, they celebrate with spring rolls and sweet dumplings filled with delicious black sesame or peanut paste (tangyuan 湯圓).

What are the prominent colors and symbols associated with the holiday?

Red (fortune and happiness) and gold (wealth) are auspicious colors of the New Year.

The decorations are typically red because in the Chinese culture, red can bring happiness, wealth, and prosperity by warding off evil spirits and bad luck.

Traditionally, beautiful calligraphy banners and couplets (Fai chun 揮春 or chūn lián春联) on red paper with gold or black ink, decorate doors and walls with phrases about good luck and prosperity.

Red lanterns in front of the door are believed to drive off bad luck. Peach blossoms represent longevity, and symbolize romance, prosperity, and growth. Kumquats symbolizes luck, happiness, and prosperity. In Cantonese, the kumquat is called gam gat 金桔. The word gam (金) is the Cantonese word for 'gold', and the word gat (桔) sounds like the Cantonese word for 'good luck'. The lion dance or dragon dances welcome good fortune and chase away evil spirits.

How do you see these colors and symbols used?

Homes and businesses are adorned with red and gold decorations. People dress in red and gold for good luck and decorate their homes with fruit blossoms to symbolize the start of a new cycle, wishing for a plentiful and prosperous year. My father, every year without fail, brings home kumquats and a big peach blossom in hopes that it will bloom beautifully to symbolize a great year ahead for the entire family.

Are there any colors or symbols that are avoided at the Chinese New Year?

Generally, white and black are to be avoided during any Chinese festivities. Red symbolizes joy, vitality, fertility, luck and prosperity while white is associated with death and commonly worn at funerals, so we try to avoid wearing white for Chinese New Year.

What are the hallmarks of authentic traditional Chinese design?

Designs that celebrate the authentic traditional art forms will pay attention and homage to the arts’ and crafts’ rich history. Brush strokes, intricate paper cutout art, and depictions of nature are a few telling hallmarks.

For you personally, what do you look forward to most at the Chinese New Year?

As a kid, I looked forward to when my grandma would put out her candy box or “The Tray of Togetherness (cheun hup 全盒). It was the only time in the year that we got to have sweets without too many rules. Candied coconut shreds are my favorite, still to this day.

As an adult, I look forward to all the festive decorations and the time for change and renewal. It’s so special to fill our home with colorful flowers and plants, and as a parent, I look forward to teaching my kids about the traditions, food, and symbolism of Chinese New Year. As a designer, it is an inspiring time to see colorful and symbolic designs with a rich history translated in modern designs.

祝来年好運,身體健康, 萬事如意, 牛年大吉!

Wishing all good luck, good health, and happiness. Happy New Year of the Ox!


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