The Chinese phrase for celebrating Chinese New Year, “Guo Nian”, means “the passing of the beast”. In Chinese mythology, a Nian is a beast that lives under the sea or in the mountains. Once each spring, at Chinese New Year, it comes out of hiding to attack people. Fortunately, the Nian is sensitive to loud noises and afraid of the colour red, so, to drive it away, the Chinese have traditions of decorating things in red, exploding firecrackers and performing a lion dance.
The Chinese New Year is popularly known as the Spring Festival. Its origin is too old to be traced. All agree, however, that the word Nian, which in modern Chinese solely means “year”, was originally the name of a monster beast that started to prey on people the night before the beginning of a new year (of the Chinese Calendar)
Legend tells of a terrible beast called Nian (or Nien) who would come to villages to satisfy his appetite, eating the people, as well as their livestock and crops. One day, an old man came to their rescue, offering to subdue Nian. To Nian he said, “I hear say that you are very capable, but can you swallow the other beasts of prey on earth instead of people who are by no means of your worthy opponents?” So, swallow it did many of the beasts of prey on earth.
The old man turned out to be an immortal god and left riding the back of the Nian. Now that Nian is gone and other beasts of prey are also scared into forests, people begin to enjoy their peaceful life.
Before the old man left, he had told people to put up red paper decorations on their windows and doors at each year’s end to scare away Nian in case it sneaked back again, because red is the color the beast feared the most.
From then on, the tradition of observing the conquest of Nian is carried on from generation to generation. The term “Guo Nian”, which may mean “Survive the Nian” becomes today “Celebrate the (New) Year” as the word “guo” in Chinese having both the meaning of “pass-over” and “observe”. The villagers enjoyed their peaceful lives, each year hanging red lanterns and red scrolls on their doors and in their windows to keep away the Nian and also lighting firecrackers to frighten him if he tried to come back.
The custom of putting up red paper and firing fire-crackers to scare away Nian should it have a chance to run loose is still around.