Many of these holidays in China are based on the Chinese lunar calendar.
New Year (January 1). This New Year’s Day is celebrated with the rest of the world, but with much less fervor than the Chinese New Year later on. Government offices, schools, and other businesses are closed. Some people do light off fireworks at midnight, though.
Chinese New Year (varies/January or February): Also called the Spring Festival, even though it generally is celebrated at the end of January or beginning of February. Starting days before, people clean their homes from top to bottom in preparation for getting rid of bad vibes and bad spirits. It’s a time for visiting family and sharing a specially prepared meal together. Fireworks are a popular feature for the holiday. Red is considered a lucky holiday, and many people give gifts of money in red envelopes.
Lantern Festival (varies): This holiday is the official ending of the Chinese New Year. Children (and adults too, I suppose) go out at night carrying paper lanterns to the temples. Poems and riddles are printing on the lanterns. Some places have larger festivities than others, the city of Chengdu being one of them. They are famous for their large lantern in the shape of a dragon.
Zhonghe Festival (varies): Also known as Dragon Raising Its Head. This holiday goes back to the Chinese agrarian culture. In their culture, the dragon is thought to be the leader or king of all of the animals and is also thought to be the ancestor of humans. (I know a few slimy people who make me think there might be some validity in that.) Because they also believed that dragons caused it to rain, it’s become a festival for farming and planting and honoring the earth in hopes for a good harvest.
International Women’s Day (March 8): Celebrated in China since 1975, women are presented with flowers and children will help out with household chores. Women are rewarded with a half-day off, and some towns will hold small festivals and mountain climbing competitions.
Arbor Day (March 12): Much along the same lines as Arbor Day in most other places in the world, it’s also known as National Tree Planting Day.
Qingming Festival (varies/April): Also known as Chinese Memorial Day or Tomb Sweeping Day. Its name also denotes that this is a time for people to go outside and enjoy the fresh air. It’s a time to celebrate their ancestors by visiting their gravesites. Family members will often leave gifts including food and drink on the grave. Kite-flying is a popular activity to do around this time. At one time, people would carry burning paper or incense, but that has given way to carrying flowers, to the relief of fire marshals everywhere.
Labor Day (May 1): Also called May Day, many towns and cities hold festivals and celebrations for people to come out and enjoy. There are also speeches and special TV entertainment during the evening.
Youth Day (May 4): This day coordinates with the May Fourth Movement (as opposed to Star Wars Day, “May the Fourth Be With You”). This day is in remembrance of the May 4, 1919 anti-imperialist protests by students in Beijing, mostly in protest of the Treaty of Versailles, which among other things, allowed Japan to hold on to territories in Shandong, a peninsular province between Beijing and Shanghai; these territories had been surrendered by Germany. This day also is for Youth Day, a day intended for youth over age 14 to study hard and reward those students who are doing exceptionally well.
Children’s Day (June 1): Many museums and parks have special programs for children, and it’s a day that many parents take their kids out to learn about Chinese history and culture. There are also programs and shows of children's choirs and dance recitals and other activities for and by children.
Dragon Boat Festival (varies/June): Also known as Duanwu Festival. It’s held around the summer solstice time, because in Chinese culture, both the sun and the dragon represent male energy (likewise, the moon and the phoenix represent female energy). So, this day where men are racing long boats with the ends sporting large dragonheads and the entire boat is painted like a dragon. The pilot episode of the children’s show Nihao, Kai-lan is called “Dragon Boat Festival.” I know this show well.
CPC Founding Day (July 1): This holiday is for the First National Congress in 1921. The actual site in Shanghai of this first meeting is now a museum. It more or less seems like a meeting of the leaders of the Communist Party, and even today, it remains so. The current General Secretary is Xi Jinping.
China National Maritime Day (July 11): 2005 marked the 600th anniversary of Zheng He’s first voyage. He was a sailor and navigator during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) who traveled around the world, on seven voyages, just to show what strength China held. 600 years is such a long time, it’s hard for me to imagine. In the United States, we think of something that is 200 years old as “old,” but when I was in Japan, I went to a house that was 900 years old. I can’t even fathom that level of “old.”
Army Day (August 1): This is in commemoration of the Nanchang Uprising in 1927. This was the first major incident in the Chinese Civil War. It was basically between the communists (the Kuomintang) and the anti-communists. It’s become more like what Veteran’s Day is in the US. Some places offer free admission for soldiers and their children.
Double Seven Festival (varies): Also known as Qixi Festival or sometimes, Chinese Valentine’s Day. It’s based in the mythological story of a cowherd and a weaver girl who meet each year on this day. (It is also the basis of Tanabata in Japan and Chilseok in Korea.) Basically, the cowherd met a beautiful girl who escaped from heaven to look for fun; they fell in love and got married. The Goddess Mother got mad that she married a mortal and forced her to return to Heaven. Saddened, the cowherd’s ox told him that if he killed the ox and wore his fur, he could enter Heaven to look for her, which he did, and it made the Goddess Mother really mad. So, she scratched a line to keep them away forever – creating the Milky Way – but on one day a year, all of the magpies in the world formed a bridge so that they were able to meet again for a moment. (There’s no mention of the dad in this story, but maybe he was indifferent to the whole situation and just kept his mouth shut, and she created some other celestial body for him – a black hole, perhaps. Maybe?)
Ghost Festival (varies, late August): Sometimes called the Hungry Ghost Festival, it’s the day when all of the ancestors from the lower realm come out. Some of the rituals and traditions seem similar to the Qingming Festival back in April. Many people release paper boats and lanterns on the water, and offerings of incense and food are left on the gravesites. Many families will often have elaborate meals, leaving an empty seat for the deceased person. The origins are similar to O-bon in Japan.
Mid-Autumn Festival (varies/September or October): Also known as Moon Festival, it’s held around the time of the autumnal equinox. Eating mooncakes around this time is very popular. Lanterns, lion dances, incense, dragons, and moon watching are also popular around this time.
Chongyang Festival (varies/September): Also known as the Double Ninth Festival. This festival takes place in autumn and celebrates the Yang, or male energy or positivity. Chong means double. People will have parties and the symbol for this day, the chrysanthemum, is placed everywhere. One popular event on this day is mountain climbing and cake. I’ll personally just skip the mountain climbing and stick with the cake.
National Day (October 1): One of the most popular traditions on this day is to gather at Tiananmen Square and watch the raising of the flag. (Yes, this is the same Tiananmen Square that that brave guy stood in front of the tank, whose images are still etched in my mind from watching it unfold on TV.) Festivals go on all day with fireworks displays at night. The festival generally lasts three days and is because there are a lot of indulgent foods around this time, it’s also referred to as Golden Week.
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