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February 2015

Why does Chinese New Year start in February?

Take a look at the workings of the Chinese calendar, and how it differs from the other calendars in existence!

Chinese New Year, celebrated on February 19, marked the beginning of this new year in the Chinese lunisolar calendar. But now that the new year has started, what does it all mean? Why is the traditional Chinese calendar so different than the one used worldwide today? Let’s take a look at the workings of the calendar and how it differs from the other calendars in existence.

The Chinese calendar is based on moon cycles

It’s fairly obvious to note that lunar calendars are based on lunar phases. The Chinese calendar, however, is categorised as lunisolar, meaning it takes into account both the moon and the sun. The calendar originated over 3,000 years ago during the Shang Dynasty. With the Chinese calendar, days begin at midnight and end the following midnight. Months begin with the first phase of the moon (also known as the new moon or dark moon) and end before the next. The start of the Chinese calendar usually falls on the date of the second new moon after the winter solstice, as the winter solstice must occur within the 11th month of the calendar.

Each year is symbolised with one of 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac (also known as Shengxiao, translated literally to "birth likeness"). Those born within each year are said to exhibit certain personality traits, much like in Western astrology. The current year is the Year of the Goat (or Ram or Sheep, depending on the translation of the character yang). Characteristics of those born under this sign are said to be peace loving, kind, and popular.

What’s the deal with the ubiquitous calendar used today?

The Gregorian calendar (also known as the Western or Christian calendar) used worldwide today isn't so old after all. It dates back to 1582, when Pope Gregory XIII introduced it as a refinement over Julius Caesar's Julian calendar. Both the Gregorian and Julian calendars attempt to define the solar year, making them solar calendars. Pope Gregory's refinements made adjustments for accuracy as well as highlighting dates important to the Christian faith.

The Gregorian calendar is the de facto standard for worldwide timekeeping. To step away from the Christian connotations brought about by AD (Anno Domini) and BC (Before Christ), modern variations include, in their place, CE (Common Era) and BCE (Before Common Era).

The world is full of lunar calendars

It would surprise many to discover that the oldest recorded calendar is actually a lunar calendar that originated in Scotland, dating back to approximately 8,000 BC. Discovered in Aberdeenshire field by an archaeology team from the University of Birmingham in 2004, it is a Mesolithic calendar made by hunter-gatherers 5,000 years prior to the formal calendars created in the East.

Other cultures, primarily those founded by those of the Islamic faith, also utilize the lunar calendar (known as the Hijri Qamari or, more simply, the Islamic calendar) for primarily religious purposes. Saudi Arabia's lunar calendar (known as the Umm al-Qura) is also its official calendar. Islamic calendars are vital for coordinating the celebrations of holy days for observers of the faith around the world.

Christians of old observed the moon as well. Easter, one of the most important Christian holy days, is traditionally celebrated a week after the Paschal Full Moon (the first full moon of spring). This places Easter anywhere between March 22 and April 25 (in 2015, Easter will fall on Sunday, April 5). The usage of lunar cycles to calculate Easter is exhibited by the Gregorian lunisolar calendar, a separate calendar that incorporates ecclesiastical lunar rules as well as solar considerations.

Finally, there's the less exciting type of calendar known as the fiscal calendar, based not on lunar or solar cycles but on budgeting, accounting, and taxation. Different countries utilize various dates based on their schedules and local customs.

Calendars just got a lot more complicated! Does your country use a different calendar for traditional purposes? Let us know on Facebook and be sure to “like” TELC English for more articles on culture from around the world.

Picture: (c) GiZGRAPHICS, Fotolia