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The Legend of the Nian is Part of Ancient Chinese Mythology

The Chinese New Year is on February 1st, so Chinese families everywhere are preparing for the festivities that this holiday brings. From celebrating ancestors to dancing to traditional foods, this day is full of joy and tradition. One central theme throughout the holiday is the color red and the famed lion dance performances. These traditions originated with the ancient Chinese legend about a creature named Nian.

What Is the Story of Nian?

Although there are a number of versions of the legend of the Nian in Chinese mythology, they all involve a terrible monster who lived in the mountains of ancient China. The creature, who was depicted as a lion, unicorn, bull or ox, would come down from the mountains at the end of every year to destroy the crops, animals and fields, terrify the people and sometimes kill them as well.

The people were terrified of the monster Nian that would wreak havoc every year, but they eventually found that it was afraid of the color red, bright lights, fire and loud noises. Using this knowledge, the people devised a plan to frighten the monster the next time New Year's Eve came around.

The villagers created a model of the animal out of bamboo, paper and cloth, and two men waited inside it. When Nian came to destroy their crops and terrorize the people, the men in the model of Nian danced around while the villagers beat drums, cymbals and gongs and set off firecrackers. Scared of all the loud noises, bright lights and the color red, Nian ran away. The villagers rejoiced, having finally freed themselves from the destruction of the horrifying monster!

To celebrate this, the Nian dance or lion dance is performed on Chinese New Year's Eve, along with other holidays throughout the year. If you've ever seen performers wearing a lion costume and mimicking a lion, this is the lion dance, and it's a traditional dance in Chinese culture. The dance is thought to bring good luck and fortune, another reason to do it at the start of a new year. The Chinese New Year story of Nian also explains why firecrackers and the color red are such a big part of the holiday's festivities.

What is the Chinese New Year?

Rows of colorful glowing red Chinese lanterns

Getty Images/goc

Chinese New Year, also called Lunar New Year or Spring Festival, is celebrated in China and other Asian countries. It starts on the first new moon of the lunar calendar and ends on the first full moon, which is 15 days later. Although this falls on different dates each year, this year the celebration is on Tuesday, February 1st.

About 10 days before Chinese New Year's Day, families begin cleansing their houses to get rid of any bad luck that may be contained within. Then, on New Years Eve and New Year's Day, families celebrate with religious ceremonies honoring their ancestors. Red envelopes containing money are given out, and the streets are filled with dances and fireworks. The celebrations end with the Lantern Festival, during which houses are filled with colorful lanterns, and people enjoy traditional New Year's foods like prosperity cake, sticky rice balls, and fish.

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