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Children learn about culture from a woman in preparation for the Year of the Rabbit in Huzhou, China. Lunar New Year celebrations often include the wearing of red-coloured clothing – but some traditions are rarely observed any more. Photo: Getty Images

5 Chinese Lunar New Year traditions we rarely observe, from not showering to letting the mess pile up

  • Lunar New Year traditions such as giving envelopes with ‘lucky money’ are still observed, but other Chinese folk customs have been largely abandoned
  • Among them are things like not showering or cleaning the house for a few days in case we wash and sweep away the coming year’s good luck, and staying at home

It is not the end of the world if that “new year, new me” fantasy did not become a reality at the start of 2023, nor is there a need to wait 365 days to do it over – the Lunar New Year is just around the corner.

Observed by numerous cultures around the world, the Lunar New Year – also known as the Chinese New Year and Spring Festival – falls on January 22 this year.

The occasion marks the beginning of the year based on sun and moon cycles, and the return of spring after winter. This was especially important for farmers in ancient China, who relied on weather predictions to maximise their harvests and secure their livelihoods for the months to come.
While many around the world celebrate the Lunar New Year with traditions – in Chinese societies these include giving lai see paper envelopes filled with “lucky money” and snacking on melon seeds to represent a bountiful harvest – there are other folk customs that we have largely abandoned in modern times.
A Chinese woman cooking at a stove, circa 1910. Many families have moved into modern houses that do not have traditional cooking stoves. Photo: Getty Images

1. Making the Kitchen God happy

Chinese legend has it the Kitchen God, or Stove God, visits each household (just like Santa Claus) during the 12th month of the lunar year and reports back to the Jade Emperor in the sky on what everyone has been up to in the past year.

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Many families would put out sweet delicacies such as sugar cakes, deep-fried pancakes, and bean curd soup before New Year’s Eve as offerings to the kitchen deity, in the hopes that he would say sweet things about them during their appraisal.

Unlike Santa Claus, who is not known for accepting monetary bribes, people would then welcome the Kitchen God back to their stove by burning incense and joss paper money.

These rituals are rarely seen these days, as many families have moved into modern houses that do not have traditional cooking stoves.

A man sets off firecrackers during a celebration of the Lunar New Year on February 1, 2022. Photo: Getty Images

2. ‘Opening the year’ with a fire hazard

One well-known Chinese folk tale tells the story of a nian – a homonym for “year” in Mandarin – a mythical beast that used to rampage through villages every year, destroying houses and devouring villagers.

The villagers discovered that the nian was terrified of loud noises, so they poured gunpowder into dry bamboo sticks and threw them into fires. The resulting noise when they exploded would scare him off.

Later on, firecrackers were used to ward off evil spirits. A string of small firecrackers is set off at midnight to symbolise the ringing out of the old year, then three big firecrackers are lit to welcome the new year. The louder they are, the better prosperity will be for the next 12 months.

The private use of fireworks, which includes firecrackers, has been banned in Hong Kong since the 1960s for safety reasons. The same goes for many major cities in China.
A group of women washing at a stone pool in Yunnan, China. Many people avoided doing their laundry and washing their hair on the first two days of the Lunar New Year. Photo: Shutterstock

3. Putting personal hygiene on hold

According to legend, the first two days of the Lunar New Year are also the birthday of the God of Water, who gets offended when people wash their hair and clothes with water. Clearly, he is a lot to deal with – having a two-day birthday seems excessive, if not narcissistic.

There was also a belief that, as “hair” in Mandarin and Cantonese sounds like “to prosper”, washing one’s hair meant that one would be washing away one’s prosperity for the coming year. As a result, many people avoided doing their laundry and washing their hair on those two days.

Today, this tradition is largely ignored, especially in subtropical areas of the world like Hong Kong, where the air is often muggy and humid.

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4. Staying home on the third day

The third day of the Lunar New Year is known as Scarlet Dog Day – which, sadly, has nothing to do with dressing up puppies like little lai see packets.

According to Chinese folklore the Scarlet Dog was the God of Anger, who roamed around on the third day of the new year. Those who ran into him were guaranteed to have bad luck.

As if that was not enough anti-dog propaganda, “scarlet dog” rhymes with “scarlet mouth”, which means to squabble with family and neighbours. As such, many would stay at home and not visit or receive others to avoid an accidental run-in with the Scarlet Dog.

While this is typically no longer done, we cannot think of a better winter pastime than sleeping in to avoid any more socialising.

Sweeping the floor traditionally signified the removal of the new year’s incoming good luck and wealth. Photo: Shutterstock

5. Cleaning – and then not cleaning at all

It is time to hide the mops and brooms from our resident clean freaks at home, because we should not be cleaning the floor for the first few days of the new year.

Sweeping the floor, throwing water out and removing the rubbish from a home all traditionally signified the removal of the new year’s incoming good luck and wealth. As such, none of this would be done for a period of two to five days.

This might be why many families do their spring cleaning on the eve of the Lunar New Year as they bid farewell to the past year.

While this custom is rarely seen in cities today, it is still practised in some rural Chinese villages.