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Who Is Nian? The Mythical Beast That Ate Children and Started Chinese New Year

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Chinese New Year is on February 16 this year. Millions of people around the world are gearing up to celebrate the holiday with their friends and family. Getty

February 16, 2018, marks the start of the Lunar New Year, a monthlong holiday celebrated by Chinese people all over the world. The century-old festival is a time for honoring deities, cherishing family and ushering in new beginnings.

But what brought about these traditions all those many moons ago?

This is the legend of Nian—the mythical beast that ate children and started Chinese New Year.

A long time ago, a terrible demon beast called Nian lived in the mountains. Every year the demon would awaken and angrily descend on nearby villages. He would eat all their food, livestock and grain...and if there were any children nearby, Nian would eat them too.

The villagers feared the beast and lived in terror. Around the same time every year, families boarded up their windows and huddled together at nighttime, hoping the monster would pass without murdering them or eating all their crops.

One year, an old man visited the village before Nian’s impending arrival. After hearing about the villagers’ troubles, he asked them, “Why do you fear this creature? There are many of you and just one of him. Surely he can’t kill you all.”

The villagers ignored the old man and locked themselves away for the night, but that evening Nian did not come. The old man had taken the beast out and ridden him all night long. By morning the demon went back into his cave starving.

The old man did this for a few more nights, but on the fourth night, he told the villagers, “I cannot protect you forever.” He explained to the people that he was a god and had duties elsewhere to attend to.

The villagers were scared the monster would return and begged the old man for help in defeating him.

“You can’t kill the demon Nian, but you can keep him at bay,” the old man said. “The beast is easily scared. He does not like the color red. He fears loud noises and strange creatures. So tonight, spread red across the village. Hang red signs on every door. Make loud noises with drums, music and fireworks. And give your children face masks and lanterns to protect them.”

During the same month every year the villagers did as the old man instructed, and Nian never came back.

In Chinese, the word for New Year is Gao Nian—which literally means to “pass over Nian” or “overcome Nian.”

To ward off the demon, villagers hung red decorations in and around their houses, filled the streets with music and loud drums and they even let off fireworks all day long. Eventually this became tradition nationwide, and this is now how China celebrates the Lunar New Year.

This is the story of Chinese New Year or Gao Nian.