Festivals and Holidays
Chinese Lunar Calendar
The Chinese lunar calendar has been in continual use in China for nearly 4,000 years, though this is believed to be even longer according to Chinese tradition.
Though called the “lunar” calendar, it is based on astronomical observations of both the sun and the moon. In the Chinese calendar, the duration of each month is calculated by one cycle of the moon.
The calendar, prepared each year by the emperor’s astronomers in ancient China, was important as a guide for agricultural activities. Moreover, regularity in the yearly cycle was a sign of a well-governed empire and that the emperor’s rule was sanctioned by a heavenly mandate.
Along with China and Hong Kong, the lunar calendar is used by other Asian cultures and Chinese communities around the world, to determine auspicious days for events, such as marriages and births, starting a business, holding a special family event and community festivals. In China and Hong Kong, the Western calendar is used for all business-related purposes, while the Chinese calendar dictates the days for the main Chinese holidays and festivals throughout the year.
Chinese Zodiac and the Five Elements
The Chinese calendar is based on a 12-year cycle. Each year in the cycle is designated by an animal of the Chinese zodiac, an explanation for which can be traced back to an ancient Chinese folk tale called The Great Race.
In one version of this story, the Jade Emperor, ruler of all gods within Chinese mythology, held a race for the animals on earth which involved crossing a river at the finish line. The first 12 animals to cross the river would be selected as calendar signs, and the order in which they arrived would determine the order of the zodiac.
By order of arrival and hence the order of the zodiac is as follows: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat (or Ram), Monkey, Rooster (or Chicken), Dog and Pig. Each zodiac animal has its own unique traits and qualities.
For a more precise character analysis of each zodiac sign, each person is further assigned one of five elements representing various parts of the body, according to Chinese philosophy and traditional Chinese medicine: wood (liver), fire (heart), earth (spleen), metal (lungs) and water (kidneys).
Parents give considerable thought to when and specifically under which zodiac sign and element they will have a child. It is believed that the year and the sign and element a child is born under affects their character, their personality and their fortune.
The Year of the Metal Ox arrived on February 11, 2021 and the Year of the Water Tiger arrives on February 1, 2022.
Quick-witted, charming and funny and are a good friend to those they consider close. They are curious and welcome challenges, and are said to be motivated by money.
Goal and detail-oriented, hardworking and stubborn people who make reliable and strong companions and enjoy being surrounded by friends and family.
Strong, natural leaders who are courageous, ambitious and charming. They can be moody and intense at times.
Popular, compassionate, diplomatic and sincere people who prefer to avoid conflict. Rabbits also enjoy being at home and being surrounded by family and friends.
Energetic and warm hearted, charismatic and lucky in love. “Dragons” are also natural born leaders who are willing to do whatever is necessary to remain on top.
The most intuitive of all the animals, good with money, analytical, smart and hardworking. They hate failure and can get easily stressed.
Free-spirited, self-reliant, positive people who enjoy traveling, love and intimacy. On the flip side, they can be vain and impatient at times.
Enjoy being alone in their thoughts. Goats are creative, sensitive individuals who excel in artistic pursuits but can be unorganized and prone to anxiety.
Energetic, upbeat people who enjoy being active and constantly stimulated. Their mischievous and playful nature can just as easily get them out of trouble as it can land them in it.
Confident, honest, motivated, loyal and trustworthy. They can be pompous and blunt when giving their opinions which stems from their honesty trait. They also expect honesty from others.
Loyal, faithful and honest. Though they can be sensitive and temperamental, Dogs are known to excel in business as they make great leaders.
Friendly, sociable good-mannered companions who enjoy helping others until someone crosses them, then you should watch out!
Major Chinese Festivals
Public holidays in Hong Kong are hugely anticipated. Excluding Sundays, Hong Kong enjoys a total of 17 general or public holidays, which include both Chinese and Western festivals.
During these days, many take the opportunity to travel abroad. For those that choose to stay behind, there are plenty of local celebrations and festivities around the city to get involved in, and many shops and restaurants remain open. But take note — if you plan on eating out during the holidays, it’s best to make advance bookings to avoid disappointment.
There are five major festivals in the Chinese calendar, all marked by a public holiday. These are: Lunar New Year (Spring Festival), Ching Ming (Tomb Sweeping Day), Tuen Ng (Dragon Boat Festival), Mid-Autumn (Mooncake Festival) and Chung Yeung (Double Ninth Festival).
Chinese Lunar New Year
The Lunar New Year is the most important festival in Chinese culture, the exact start date of which varies annually depending on the cycle of the moon. Unlike January 1, which is only celebrated on one day, the Lunar New Year is celebrated across a period of 15 days before, during and after the main day.
In the lead up to the occasion, people clean their homes, pay respects to the Kitchen God and the shrines of their ancestors. Gifts are exchanged, and many wear new outfits. Families celebrate with huge banquets at home, and children, the unmarried, caretakers, doormen and such receive lai see (“lucky money”) slipped into red envelopes stamped with gold characters for luck, wealth and happiness. Flowers, especially peach blossoms, kumquat trees, and narcissus, are in every home. People greet one another with wishes of health, prosperity and good fortune. Among the most common greetings you will hear are “Kung Hei Fat Choy” (“good wishes, good fortune”) and “Sun Nin Fai Lok” (“Happy New Year”).
For several days before Chinese New Year, there are huge flower fairs in various areas of Kowloon, the New Territories and Hong Kong Island. The largest is at Victoria Park in Causeway Bay. On the eve of the first day of the holiday, the fairs last all night. They are the most crowded, and prices come down in the wee hours. It’s quite a happy scene of families, people haggling over prices, brilliant lights, food, sweets, ice cream and children carrying loads of flowers and toys bigger than themselves.
Hawkers and New Territories gardeners sell thousands of potted plants, fresh flowers and tree branches during the four days they remain open. If the plants bloom on New Year’s Day, it is considered especially fortunate.
A Lunar New Year highlight each year includes the Chinese New Year night parade held on the first day of the New Year at the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront. It starts from the piazza of the Hong Kong Cultural Centre and features dozens of dancers and specially designed floats sponsored by companies and organizations from around the world.
On the second day of the New Year, a fireworks extravaganza is usually held at Victoria Harbour. Hundreds of thousands of revelers pack the two sides of the waterfront to enjoy the show. The best places to see the fireworks are in front of the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre and at the Cultural Centre waterfront. However, to get a good spot, you must go there hours before and stake it out. Crowd control procedures mean that access to these locations may be limited or closed off once it gets close to the start of the fireworks. Another option is to reserve a dinner or special evening at one of the many hotels and restaurants that have a harbor view; they will certainly have fireworks-related special offers.
Ching Ming Festival
Ching Ming is an important holiday, particularly for the older and more traditional people in the Chinese community, when they clean the graves of ancestors and leave food and wine for the spirits. Incense, paper money and all manner of elaborate clothing, cell phones, televisions, microwaves, chocolate, cigarettes and even mansions and pets, all made of paper, are burned supposedly to reach the dead, to ensure they are satisfied with their descendants, and are happy in heaven. Some say this exchange between the living and the dead is the most important feature of the Chinese ideological domain. Death does not terminate relationships of reciprocity among Chinese; it simply transforms these ties and often makes them stronger.
Some say this exchange between the living and the dead is the most important feature of the Chinese ideological domain.
Unfortunately, the burning of offerings, barbeques and setting of firecrackers mean the festival is the day on which Hong Kong’s firefighters grapple with the biggest number of hill fires — there were 97 reported in 2019’s event. The AFCD also handed out 164 spot fines for littering: Traditional grave sites are often at scenic spots in rural Hong Kong, and piles of trash are a perennial problem.
Tuen Ng Festival
Falling on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, Tuen Ng Festival, also known as Dragon Boat Festival, is named for the lively, noisy dragon boat races that are held each year to mark the occasion. These boats, which have ornately carved and painted “dragon” heads and tails, each carry a team of rowers who race against other boats to the beat of pounding drums and cheering crowds. Teams train hard for this fun and exciting annual summer event, and participation is open to all.
Tuen Ng Festival commemorates the death of Qu Yuan, a Chinese national hero who drowned himself in protest against corrupt leaders, upon which the townspeople threw glutinous rice dumplings called zongzi into the water and beat drums in an effort to prevent fish from eating his body. Besides the dragon boat races, people also go swimming, and consume zongzi in remembrance of this tragic event.
The Mid-Autumn Festival, sometimes referred to as the Mooncake Festival, is an occasion for family gatherings and parties, with everyone eating mooncakes to commemorate an uprising in 14th-century China against the Mongols, who ruled China. Notice for timing of the revolt was sent on papers baked inside small cakes. Considered a great delicacy, the traditional cakes consist of a paste of ground sesame and lotus seeds, and sometimes a salted egg yolk, covered by pastry.
All bakeries in Hong Kong produce the traditional mooncakes, as well as a wide variety of more modern versions with ingredients such as ice cream and chocolate, which often need to be preordered a month or two in advance. The festival has also become an occasion for companies to give gifts, such as fruit baskets and boxes of mooncakes, to their special clients and business partners.
Children commonly make or buy paper lanterns, and many parks (notably Victoria Park) have elaborate displays of lanterns to admire. Many families also go out for moongazing and nighttime picnics (often on the beach) on the evening of the festival, and/or attend a dazzling fire dragon dance; the most famous ones are in Tai Hang (near Causeway Bay) and Pokfulam.
Chung Yeung Festival
This is another major festival to remember the deceased, celebrated as it has been for 1,900 years, involving a kind of Chinese “Noah’s Ark” fable about a man who took his family to a high place to avoid floods and sickness. On this holiday, people set out to climb to higher ground to ward off future disasters. Buses to the Peak and the Peak Tram have endless waiting lines. This is also the second festival designated for people to visit and clean the graves of their ancestors.
Other significant Chinese festivals, which may or may not be marked with a public holiday, are celebrated with just as much zest.
Buddha’s Birthday, a public holiday, is celebrated on the eighth day of the fourth lunar month. This spiritual festival involves bathing statues of the Buddha, a ritual that is believed to aid in the purification of one’s soul. Many Buddhist temples will hold special ceremonies on this day. For the grandest ceremony, head straight to the Po Lin Monastery on Lantau Island, home to the Big Buddha.
Spring Lantern Festival
The Spring Lantern Festival, known informally as “Chinese Valentine’s Day,” is an auspicious day for couples and singles seeking love. Celebrated on the 15th day of the first lunar month, the festival coincides with the last day of Chinese New Year celebrations. On this day, colorful, intricately designed lanterns adorn the city, explaining how the festival got its name. The best place to view these beautiful lanterns is in various public spaces and parks around Hong Kong. Unfortunately, what were once lanterns made from paper, bamboo and twists of wire, are now typically plastic. For weeks after the festival, these wash up on secluded beaches and are strewn across the hillsides.
Tin Hau Festival
This festival (which is not a public holiday) pays tribute to the most popular patron saint of fisher folk — Tin Hau, Goddess of Heaven. She is variously credited with being the daughter of a high official who helped distressed seamen, and the daughter of a Fukienese fisherman, who dreamt of danger and warned her parents in advance. In Hong Kong, thousands of boat people and tourists go to a large temple dedicated to her in Joss House Bay in Sai Kung, where lion dances and parades are held and prayers are offered in the hope of good luck at sea.
Cheung Chau Bun Festival
The Cheung Chau Bun Festival is celebrated for several days and includes Taoist ceremonies and music, lion dances, a street parade, and soaring “bun towers” to placate the spirits who, it is said, caused storms and plagues to befall Cheung Chau island over 200 years ago.
Hungry Ghost Festival
Chinese people believe that the seventh month in the lunar calendar is when restless spirits roam the earth. During this time, many locals make efforts to appease these ghosts, while “feeding” their own ancestors — particularly on the 15th day, which is the Yu Lan or Hungry Ghost Festival.
During this month you can see many people tending roadside fires and burning faux money and other offerings for ghosts and ancestors to use in the afterlife. Food is also left out to sate the appetite of the hungry ghosts. Walking around the city at night can be a fascinating, otherworldly experience (literally), but leave your cameras at home — you might capture something you don’t wish to see!
Winter Solstice Festival
Falling during the 11th lunar month, the Winter Solstice or shortest day of the year, was traditionally the time by which farmers and fishermen had to finish preparations for the cold months ahead, and has always been an important celebration of uniting families.
In Hong Kong, most people finish work early on the day of the festival and go home to enjoy dinner with their families. Tongyuen, a sweet soup with balls of sticky rice, is typically eaten for dessert because its name sounds like “reunion.”
Thanks to its colonial past and large expatriate community, Hong Kong has embraced many Western festivals.
Some occasions, such as Good Friday, Easter Monday, Christmas and Boxing Day, are listed as public holidays. Other festivals, such as Valentine’s Day and Halloween, while not public holidays, are equally looked forward to as a reason to celebrate and have fun.
On Valentine’s Day in Hong Kong, restaurants and hotels offer special deals while florists and chocolatiers purvey seasonal specialties aimed at the hopeful and hopelessly in love. Many Hong Kong couples expect to spend a lot of money on this day, and it is not uncommon to see young Chinese women toting around large, expensive flower bouquets like badges of pride.
Easter is celebrated with a long general holiday, typically only a month or two after the long Lunar New Year holidays. As a religious celebration, Christians in Hong Kong commemorate Easter with special services at churches of all denominations. For others, it is a much-welcomed long weekend that will be enjoyed outdoors as the weather in Hong Kong turns warmer.
Like other Western festivals, the festival of Halloween has been embraced by Hong Kong as an excuse to dress up in costumes and party. Some of the best places to celebrate the spooky occasion include theme parks Hong Kong Disneyland and Ocean Park, which host Halloween-themed attractions each year for people of all ages. Those who prefer to party can soak up the festive vibes in Lan Kwai Fong, Tsim Sha Tsui or other night spots throughout Hong Kong.
Christmas & Boxing Day
Christmas Day and Boxing Day are official rest days, although retailers remain open on both days. Christmas is a magical time in Hong Kong. Typically, festive decorations will appear throughout the city in late November, especially at retail shops and hotels. Office buildings adorned with colorful lights and seasonal greetings illuminate both sides of Victoria Harbour, and a huge Christmas tree shines and sparkles in Central’s Statue Square, enhancing the city’s festive ambiance. Malls and shops are decked out in fantastic Christmas finery, heralding holiday greetings and beckoning one and all with wonderful seasonal promotions. Expect to see Christmas carolers performing at tourist spots, and allow yourself to stand and listen to them while taking in all the joy this season has to offer. Churches around Hong Kong hold special masses or services to mark the religious significance of the occasion.
New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day
Hong Kong is fortunate to celebrate both the Chinese and Western New Years. Falling so close to the Christmas holidays and with schools closed for an extended break, many individuals and families take this opportunity to go on a long holiday, visit family living abroad or go back “home.”
Other Public Holidays
Labor Day, or May Day, is a public holiday in many countries around the world associated with the start of spring and is a celebration of workers. In Hong Kong it is celebrated on May 1.
Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Establishment Day
HKSAR Establishment Day, celebrated on July 1, commemorates Hong Kong’s transfer of sovereignty from the United Kingdom back to the People’s Republic of China in 1997. The public holiday is usually marked by an officially organized fireworks display in the evening, and an annual protest rally demanding universal suffrage and addressing other political issues.
China’s National Day, celebrated on October 1, commemorates the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 and has been celebrated in Hong Kong since 1997, the year of the handover. In China, the National Day holiday is a weeklong break that brings all production to a halt so workers may travel to their homes to spend the holiday with their family. In China, the National Day holiday is the second longest and most significant after Lunar New Year.
In Hong Kong only one day off is given. To mark the occasion, a grand firework display to rival the fireworks of Lunar New Year usually takes place in the evening at Victoria Harbour.