“So the background story for Chinese new year is usually told to all Asian American children. Basically there was a monster called ‘Nian’ which means ‘year’ and he would prey on the villagers and eat small children and so he came every year basically. The old wise man in the village said that if everyone in the village made a lot of noise it would scare Nian away. And Nian was also apparently afraid of the color red. So that’s why every year on Chinese New Year Chinese people celebrate with a lot of firecrackers because they are very very noisy and their favorite color to string up on houses is the color red.”
In many other tellings (told to me in my youth by Chinese teachers and parents) of this piece of folklore, the monster is called the “Nianguai” most literally meaning “year monster”. Additionally, the old wise man is not a villager, but a passing god thanking the villagers for their hospitality. There are often more details about how the passing god is treated by the villagers and the sorts of celebrations that go on with the banishment of the Nianguai, but the purpose of the story stays the same: the narrative explains why Chinese people celebrate the lunar new year using copious amounts of red decorations and firecrackers.
Firecrackers and all manner of fireworks are lit during Chinese New Year because they have the elements of cleansing fire while being ostentatious and festive. Red adds to the boldness of New Year celebrations as its the most visible color. Additionally, we might place significance in the color red because it is the color our our blood. Blood gives us life, but when its visible, we are hurt or dying. Due to this association, it is fitting for the celebration of a New Year. In a New Year’s celebration, we celebrate the death of an old year and the birth of a New Year.
Yuan, Haiwang. The magic lotus lantern and other tales from the Han Chinese. Westport, Conn: Libraries Unlimited, 2006. Print. 168-169