Based on Chinese legends and myths, the beginning of the Chinese new year started with a fight against the mythical beast known as "Nian" (the character for "year").
Nian would come on the first day of the New Year and eat the villagers’ crops, livestock, and even the children. In order to defend and protect themselves, the villages would offer food on their doorstep at the beginning of each year, and it was believed that if Nian ate the food, it wouldn’t eat the villagers or crops.
One day people observed that Nian was scared away by a little child wearing red – so the next year, when Nian came round again, the villagers began to hang red lanterns and scrolls on windows, doors, and all over the village. Firecrackers were also used to scare away the Nian – and from then on, it was never seen in the village again.
What remains of this story is that the Chinese celebrate the new year with lots of red, and lots of firecrackers.
Here’s my own account of a foreigner living in Beijing for the Chinese New Year.
I thought I was waking up in a warzone. Part of the Chinese new year celebrations involves lots – and I mean lots – of fireworks that go off into the wee hours of the night.
The entire day is filled with crackling, gunshots, and cannon-like sounds.
I think even several of the large high rise buildings caught on fire during some of the new year’s celebrations. But overall, people are excited, out of the house, and in the streets lighting firecrackers and socialising.
The next thing you see very often is Hong bao – literally red envelopes - that people give to each other filled with money. Hong bao are given out, especially to children around the time of the new year, and the colour is supposed to ward off evil spirits and symbolizes good luck.
What’s interesting about the actual monetary amount is that there is quite a bit of superstition surrounding proper and improper numbers. For example, money should not be given in fours, because the number "4" sounds similar to the character for death and thus signifies bad luck.
Another interesting aspect of the new year is that each day is usually something different and special. For example, the fifteenth day is the festival of lanterns, which officially marks the end of the new year celebrations, and all the major parks in Beijing were filled with thousands of lanterns all over.
Finally – the largest annual human migration in the world occurs around the time of the Chinese new year. The number of individual passenger trips exceeds 2 billion during the new year period. It is tradition to return home for the new year’s period, and an additional several hundred million migrant workers return to their hometowns to celebrate.
These three traditions – the firecrackers, hong bao, and the annual migration – have a long, rich cultural history in China, and are so strong that this has now spread around the world to become a global phenomenon.