The Spring Festival is two weeks of festivities marking the beginning of the lunar New Year, usually in late January or early February. In Chinese astrology, each year is associated with one of twelve animals, and the passing into a new phase is a momentous occasion. The festival sees China at its most colourful, with shops and houses decorated with good-luck messages. The first day of the festival is marked by a family feast at which jiaozi (dumplings) are eaten, sometimes with coins hidden inside. To bring luck, people dress in red clothes (red being a lucky colour) and eat fish, since the Chinese script for fish resembles the script for “surplus”, something everyone wishes to enjoy during the year. Firecrackers are let off almost constantly to scare ghosts away and, on the fifth day, to honour Cai Shen, god of wealth. Another ghost-scaring tradition is the pasting up of images of door gods at the threshold. Outside the home, New Year is celebrated at temple fairs, which feature acrobats and clouds of smoke as the Chinese light incense sticks to placate the gods. The celebrations end with the lantern festival, when the streets are filled with multicoloured paper lanterns; many places also have flower festivals and street processions with paper dragons and other animals parading through the town. It’s customary at this time to eat tang yuan, glutinous rice balls stuffed with sweet sesame paste.

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