Chinese New Year

Grade Level: 2nd-3rd

Author: Natalie Walker


Chinese New Year is the biggest holiday celebrated among Chinese people. It is often referred to as the spring festival because it signals the beginning of spring. It is a time when families and friends get together to say goodby to the old and welcome the new. It originally lasted for about 4 weeks, but now only lasts for 3-5 days.

The exact origin of this holiday is too old to be traced, but many explanations still exist. One idea is that the holiday originated when a beast named Nian (which means year in Chinese) came out the night before the new year and started to prey on the people in the villages. Of course, the people were very frightened by this monster and so a brave old man went up to the beast and said to him that instead of eating the people of the villages, he should eat the other beasts that frightened these people. Nian followed the old man's request and all of the beasts were chased into the forest. The old man rode away on Nian's back, and as it turns out, the man was an immortal god. The people of the village were very grateful to the old man for giving them a peaceful life. Before the old man left for good, he told the people to put up red paper decorations on their windows and doors at the beginning of each new year because the color red scared the beast. They also set off firecrackers to scare away the horrible beast. This is only one idea about how Chinese New Year began, there are many other ideas about how this celebration began. Most people just celebrate the holiday without really knowing why.

Another interesting thing about Chinese New Year is that very few people know when this holiday is celebrated without looking at a traditional Chinese calendar because it never falls on the same day. The ancient Chinese used a lunar calendar. (Today we use solar calendars.) On a lunar calendar, the new year begins the first night of the new moon after the sun enters Aquarius. This date is anywhere between January 20 and February 19 (on a solar calendar). Chinese years are grouped in sets of 12 with each year being represented by an animal (zodiac sign). It is said that a person displays the characteristics of the animal of the year in which they were born. (See procedures for more information on Chinese Zodiac).

During the Chinese New Year's celebration, people participate in many traditional activities. The Chinese believe that as they enter a new year, they should put behind them all things of the past. They clean their houses, pay off debts, purchase new clothes, paint their doors and window panes, and even get new haircuts. These activities symbolize new life and new beginnings.

Homes are decorated with flowers and paper decorations stating wishes of prosperity, good luck, happiness, good fortune, wealth, and longevity for the coming year. Decorations of the incoming zodiac animal are also displayed. Red and gold are very popular colors to decorate with. Red represents power happiness, vitality (and scares away beasts). Gold represents wealth and good fortune.

One very important tradition of the Chinese New Year is exchanging gifts. A traditional gift that is given is small red envelopes filled with "lucky money". These envelopes are given to children by their family and friends. The red color is used to bring good fortune, and the money inside is used by the children to buy holiday treats. These envelopes symbolize the giving of good fortune.

Food is also very important to New Year's celebrations. Families and friends get together for large feasts. Before they eat, they place their food on alters and make offerings to the gods. The foods served at these feasts vary, but what is served is always a tradition for that family.

The dragon is another popular symbol for Chinese New Year. It is a symbol of strength, goodness, and good luck, and supernatural forces. The dragon is said to be a mythical combination of many animals. During New Years, one of the main events is a large parade down the city streets. As part of this parade, people dress up in dragon costumes and dance down the streets. These costumes are made of brightly colored silk and decorated very extravagantly. Some of the dragons are 100 feet long! Men and boys perform intricate dragon dances with one person manipulating the head of the dragon and the rest moving the body.

A Chinese New Year celebration would not be complete without fireworks. There are many beliefs about why fireworks are used. One is that the noise wakes up the dragon who will fly across the sky to bring the spring rain for the crops. Another belief is that the noise of the fireworks is supposed to scare away all evil spirits and misfortunes, preventing them from coming into the new year. In fact, gunpowder was invented in China over 1000 years ago for that very purpose. Firecrackers are thrown at the feet of the dragons in the parade to keep them awake for the celebration. The dragons are believed to sleep the rest of the year.

The Eve of the New Year is the most strictly observed part of the holiday. It starts out with a late night feast with members of the family. Ancestors are honored and offering of food and incense are made to the gods. At the strike of midnight, the celebrating really begins. The sky is filled with fireworks and the streets are filled with people wishing each other a happy new year. The next morning, gifts are exchanged among family members and friends. During the remaining days of the celebration, time is spent visiting friends and wishing them luck in the new year. New Years Eve and the first three days of the new year are officially observed as a holiday. During this time the majority of businesses (with the exception of movie theaters and restaurants) shut down for the celebrating. People return to work somewhere between the fifth and eight day of the new year, but the spirit of celebration lasts through the Festival of Lanterns on the 15th day of the new year. After this, life takes on it's normal routines again.

It is important to remember that Chinese New Year is not only celebrated in China. Anywhere there are Chinese people, there is a Chinese New Year celebration. The specific activities of the celebration often vary depending on the region, but the basic principles are the same.



Cech, M. (1991). Globalchild: Multicultural Resources for Young Children. New York: Addison-Wesley.

Chinese New Year Celebration Box Guide. (1993). Lakeshore Learning Materials.

Sing, R. (1992). Chinese New Year's Dragon Teacher's Guide. In Multicultural Celebrations. Cleveland, Ohio: Modern Curriculum Press.

Santino, J. F. (1990) Calendar. In The New Book of Knowledge (Vol. 3 pp 11-17) Connecticut: Grolier Inc.

Tan Nan Junior College of Technology. (1996). Chinese New Year. [On-line]. Available: year.html.

Warren, J. & McKinnon, E. (1988). Small World Celebrations. Everett, WA: Warren.

Yuan, Haiwang. (1995). Chinese New Year. [On-line] Available: newyear.html OR


--Students will recognize that different groups of people celebrate holidays unique to them.

--Students will demonstrate their understanding of the concept of tradition.

--Students will identify and participate in three traditional activities used during Chinese New Year celebrations.

--Students will explain why the traditional activities are done.

--Students will locate the year they (and members of their family) were born on a Chinese zodiac chart and determine if the characteristics of the animals are an accurate portrayal of their personalities.

Time Allotment:

3-5 class periods. It would be best if you could celebrate this during the actual Chinese New Year celebration time.


Resources Needed:

-World map or globe

-Chinese zodiac chart (see appendix)

-Children's books on Chinese New Year (see appendix)

-Tradition letter (see appendix)

-Paper for thank you cards

-Large paper grocery bags

-Butcher paper

-Brightly colored paints


-Glitter (gold and other colors)


-Red and black paper squares



-Drinking straws

-White paper (for money)

-Diagram of fu (FOO) symbol (see appendix)



A. Mini Lecture: Explain to children that different groups of people celebrate different holidays. Talk to them about the New Year's holiday that we just celebrated (Jan. 1). Show the students where China is on a map or a globe. Briefly describe how ancient Chinese used a lunar calendar so the new year that they celebrate is at a different time. Explain to the children how they determine the date of the new year. Share information about the history of this holiday and some of its traditions. Make sure to tell them the holiday is celebrated in places other than China. Check for understanding with questioning and review information as needed. Ask children to write something that they have learned in their journals.

B. Chinese Zodiac Activity: Review information about the lunar calendar. Explain to children how the years on a Chinese calendar are grouped into sets of twelve with each year represented by a different animal, and that the animals are called zodiac signs. Remind the children that as part of the New Year Celebration, the Chinese people welcome in the new animal for the year. They use pictures of that animal for decorating. Tell them that people believed that the characteristics of people were like those of the animal of the year they were born. Give students the Chinese Zodiac Chart (see appendix). Have them figure out the years for each animal (based on the example of the rabbit). Then have them find out what year they were born, and what year members of their family were born. (This may need to be a homework activity.) Let them match up these dates and determine if they think the characteristics of the animal accurately represents the people born in that year. Ask them if they think this would be true for all people. Here are some additional characteristics you may want to add to the chart. If time permits, have them illustrate their charts.


-Dragon--successful, bold

-Snake--elegant, sensible

-Horse--popular, clever, capable

-Sheep(ram)--sincere, sensible, artistic

-Monkey--original, talented

-Rooster--dependable, adventurous, forgiving

-Dog--responsible, gracious

-Pig(boar)--trustworthy, loyal

-Rat(mouse)--loving, keeper of secrets, charming, hard-working

-Ox--patient, easy-going, slow to anger

-Tiger--courageous, proud, cautious



C. Book Reading: Have various picture books and informational books available to the children in the classroom library. Choose some of these to read and discuss with the class. (A list of children's books is in the appendix, but there are sure to be more than are listed there.)

D. Concept Development: Review some of the traditional things done at Chinese New Year celebrations. Define the concept of tradition (A long-continued practice or custom. The handing down of beliefs, legends, and customs from generation to generation.) Give examples of things that people do that are traditions and things people do that are not traditions. Share with the children some traditions that you have or traditions that we have here in America.

E.Interview: Have the children interview their parents about traditions that they have in their families. (See appendix for letter to parents.) Have the children ask their parents how this tradition was started and what special meanings it has. Encourage children to ask about traditions connected to holidays or celebrations. Have children draw a picture about their tradition and write a short sentence about it. These pictures will be shared with the class, then bound together as a "Traditions" book that can be enjoyed by the class. Remind children that many of the things done at Chinese New Years Celebrations are based on traditions.

F. Guest Speaker: If possible find someone of Chinese descent, or someone who has visited China or been involved in a Chinese New Year celebration somewhere. Have them talk with the class about the things they heard, saw and did during the celebration. Encourage the speaker to bring any artifacts and pictures they may have. Have them individually write the speaker thank you notes. Have them include specific thing that they learned from the speaker.

G. Hands On: Chinese New Year is filled with many exciting, colorful, and traditional activities. As part of learning about this celebration, children should be able to experience some of these activities. Make sure that you remind children of the symbolism behind these activities (see background). Have the children participate in at least three of the activities provided. When they are finished with the celebration, have the children write in their journals what activities they did, and what these activities mean.

Dragon Dance-Let children work in groups of 3-4 to make their own dragon costume. Paint a large dragon's head on a grocery bag. Attach a long piece of butcher paper for the body. Decorate it with glitter, sequins and feathers to make it more fancy. Have the children make up dances and take turns being the head and the body.


Making Red Envelopes-Have the children make money out of foil and paper to put in the envelopes. Give them squares of red paper. Have them fold in the corners to meet in the middle and seal it with a gold sticker. If they wish, they can decorate the envelope to make it more special. The envelopes could be given to friends or family members.


Painting Fireworks-Give the children pieces of black paper. Have them put small drops of paint on their picture and then blow these drops with a straw. Before the paint is dry, have them sprinkle glitter on the pictures. Have the children see if they can think of other ways to paint fireworks.


Making good luck symbols-In China, the word for good luck is fu (FOO). (Explain to the children that Chinese characters are like our alphabet.) People paint signs with this character to hang in their homes and in the streets. These signs are painted in the traditional red and gold colors and are hung upside-down. The Chinese word for upside-down rhymes with the Chinese word for arrive. So it is kind of a play on words that by hanging the sign upside-down, good luck will arrive. Have the children use red squares to make their own fu sign. They can either draw the character themselves (by following directions given in the appendix) or decorate a pre-made sign using gold and red paint and glitter.


H. Compare and Contrast: This activity is to help children compare Chinese New Year celebration with the New Year celebrated on January first. Have children take a piece of paper and construct a Venn Diagram (two overlapping circles). Have them title one circle "Chinese New Year" and the other circle "January 1st New Year" label the overlapping piece "same". Have them fill out the diagram with information that is unique about each celebration, and have them fill out the overlapping section with things that each celebration has in common. After they work on it alone, let them get into small groups and share their ideas with each other.


--Chinese Zodiac Chart will be assessed.

--Pictures and sentences about traditions will be assessed.

--Thank you notes will be assessed.

--Sharing of items made during hands-on activities will be assessed.

--Journals for Mini-Lecture and reflection on Chinese New Year activities will be assessed.

--Compare and Contrast paper will be assessed.

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Chinese Zodiac Chart

Using this zodiac chart, fill in the missing years. (Follow the example of the rabbit.) Find the year you were born. Find the years members of your family were born. Do the characteristics of the animals match those of you or your family? Do you think this is true for everyone? (Be ready to answer these questions in class.) When you finish, illustrate your zodiac chart. HAVE FUN!!

Adapted from: Sing, R. (1992). Chinese New Year's Dragon Teacher's Guide. In Multicultural Celebrations. Cleveland, Ohio: Modern Curriculum Press.



Children's Literature on Chinese New Year

Behrens, June. (1982). Gung Hoy Fat Choy, Happy New Year. Chicago: Children's Book Press.

Brown, Tricia. (1987). Chinese New Year. New York: Holt.

Demi. (1987). A Chinese Zoo. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich

Handforth, Thomas. (1938). Mei Li. New York: Doubleday.

Hou-tien, Cheng. (1976). The Chinese New Year. New York: Holt.

Politi, Leo. (1960). Moy Moy. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.

Wallace, Ian. (1984). Chin Chiang and the Dragon's Dance. Toronto: Groundwood.

Waters, Kate and Madeline Slovenz-Low. (1990). Lion Dancer: Ernie Wan's Chinese New Year. New York. Scholastic.


Some Additional Teacher Resources

Blackwood, Alan. (1985). Festivals: New Year. Hove, East Sussex: Wayland

Kelley, Emily. (1984). Happy New Year. Minneapolis: Carolrhoda.

Yoshiko, Samuel. (1972). Twelve Years, Twelve Animals. Nashville: Abingdon.

**Don't forget to check the internet, because there is a lot of information on Chinese New Year on-line. You can even participate in Chinese New Year's parties on the internet!!**


Parent Letter

Dear Parents,

We are discussing the concept of traditions and how they are often unique to different groups of people. Please take a moment to let your child interview you about some traditions that you share as a family. We would especially like to know about traditions related to holidays and celebrations. (We are discussing traditions of Chinese New Year.) Thank you for your help and cooperation.



(Teacher's Name)



Good Luck (Fu) Symbols

Diagrams taken from: Sing, R. (1992). Chinese New Year's Dragon Teacher's Guide. In Multicultural Celebrations. Cleveland, Ohio: Modern Curriculum Press.

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