History of Chinese New Year - The Legend of Nian (年的传说)
The Chinese New Year (農曆新年, Nónglì Xīnnían), also known as the Lunar New Year is the most important of the traditional Chinese holidays. It is celebrated on the first day of the first month of the Chinese Lunar Calendar (the first day of the second new moon after the day on which the winter solstice occurs, unless there is an intercalary eleventh or twelfth month in the lead-up to the New Year—in such a case, the New Year falls on the day of the third new moon after the solstice).
The Chinese New Year period also known as Spring Festival starts on on 23rd or 24th day of the 12th month of the lunar calendar and ends with the Lantern Festival which is on the fifteenth day of the first month of the Lunar New Year (which is a full moon).
The Origin of Chinese New Years and the legend of Nian
The old Chinese word "Nian" meant ripe grains. This word dates back more than three thousand years ago to oracle bone inscriptions inscribed with astronomical records during the 14th Century B.C. Shang Dynasty. Before the Gregorian Calendar, a good harvest or the process of a harvest was considered a year. The whole purpose, in early history, of creating a calendar or keeping track of time was to facilitate agriculture. It was important to know when to till the soil and sow the seeds.
The first calender in China had strong roots based on the benefit of agriculture production. During the Zhou Dynasty the year was formally called "Nian" and the beginning of the year was called “SuiShou”. In 104 BC, Emperor Liu Che of the Western Han Dynasty presided over the formulation of the solar lunar calendar which is similar to the Hebrew Calendar.
Since the beginnings of the Han Dynasty, New Years Day and Winter Solstice were the Emperor’s most important times. It was the responsibility of the Emperor to keep track of the time, to perform traditional rituals, and select the music so that heaven and earth were in harmony. The marking of the Winter Solstice was an important event because if an emperor miscalculated, the kingdom wouldn't know which day marked the coming of the New Year. Thus, these two historical dates of the Lunar Calendar are set in stone.
Historically, the Spring Festival was a way of letting the people know what time it was to do what. The Lunar Calendar has all sorts of important days to kept people in tune with their daily rituals and Chinese Culture. Keep in mind that the emperors of old did not do everything by themselves and had experts or “officials” to help out, but the burden of responsibility was always on the ruling emperor. By insuring the accuracy of these dates, the state and the people knew when to work and when to do what (the Chinese Lunar Calendar is similar to the Western Farmer's Almanac).
Besides historical records, there are also many stories and legends worth mentioning. The first and most well known is the legend of Nian (Year "Nian" as in New Year –"Xin Nian"): There was a monster in ancient times with a body of a bull and the head of lion. It was a ferocious animal that lived in the mountains and hunted for a living. Towards the end of winter when there was nothing to eat it would visit the villages and attack and eat whatever it could. The villagers would live in terror over the winter. Over time the villagers realized that the ferocious Nian was afraid of three things: the color scarlet, fire, and noise. Eventually, the villagers came together and agreed that when it was time for Nian's annual visit towards the end of winter they would start a fire in front of every door, hang a scarlet painted board in front of every house, and not go to sleep but rather make noise.
One night when Nian was spotted coming down the mountain they started the fires, put up the boards painted with scarlet, and stayed up all night long making noises. The monster came down saw and heard the ruckus, freaked out, and ran into the mountain never to return again. The next morning everyone got up congratulated each other and had a big celebration. The next year they repeated the ritual and it has been passed down generation to generation, and thus the custom of Guo Nian (过年) was established.