According to tales and legends, in ancient times, every year on the eve of Chinese New Year (the end of the lunar year) there was a fight against a mythical beast called Nian. This beast had the body of a bull, the head of a lion, sharp teeth and horns, and it was said it hunted for a living.
The ferocious Nian secluded itself in the dark sea for most of the year, however, towards the end of winter, when there was nothing to eat the beast would go onshore and hunt people and other creatures, eating the livestock, crops, and even villagers, especially children. Therefore, every time before the New Year’s Eve, all the villagers would escape to remote mountains to avoid the Nian's attack.
Those who could not hide would put food in front of their doors. It was believed that after the Nian ate the food they prepared, it wouldn’t attack any more people.
One particularly bad year there was not enough food to offer the Nian, and when the villagers were bursting to take refuge in the mountains, a strange old man arrived in town.
He was a beggar in rags, walking with a stick, with silver hair but bright piercing eyes. However, in the great panic and chaos, as the villagers shuttered their doors and windows dead and packed their parcels for life necessities, no one cared about the newcomer.
An old woman from the east of the village came, took pity on the old man, and gave him some food. She told him about the monstrous Nian and tried to persuade him into fleeing with them. Unimpressed by the old woman’s story, the old man kept calm and, requesting to stay one night in the old woman’s house, he assured her that he would expel away the beast in reward.
The granny was not convinced of his abilities, and continued her persuasion, but the old man didn’t change his mind, and ultimately the woman left to the mountain alone.
At midnight, the monster broke into the village, but it sensed a subtle change: in the past, the entire village was in total darkness, but this time one house in the east corner was lighted. Approaching the house slowly, the Nian found doors and windows pasted with red papers and many candles lit inside.
The beast trembled and squalled, glaring at all the strange things. In rage and irritation, it went through the front door but at that very moment, loud cracking sound burst in the courtyard. The front door opened in a flash, and the old man came out in red gown, roaring with laughter. The Monster Nian was gravely frightened, fleeting through the dark night.
The villagers returned on the next day, surprised to find an undamaged village. At that moment, it dawned on the old woman that the old man had kept his promise. She hastened to other villagers and told them about the beggar’s commitment. All the people flocked to the old woman’s house and they found the red papers on doors and windows, candles in the house and the burnt bamboo in the courtyard.
Soon, villagers were enlightened by the truth that the bamboo cracking while burning, the red color and bright light were magic keys to scare away the monster.
After that word spread fast, and when the New Year was about to come, villagers would hang red lanterns and red spring scrolls on windows and doors, or they will used firecrackers to frighten away the Nian. Once this was done, the Nian would never go back to that village again.
The Nian was eventually captured by Hongjun Laozu, an ancient Taoist monk. After capture, the Nian became Hongjun Laozu's mount, and everyone had a big celebration. Nonetheless, the ritual involved in banishing the beast (noise, light, red) was repeated year after year, as a way to remember Hongjun Laozu heroism, and soon it became tradition, passing down from generation to generation. Hence, on every New Year's Eve, people would paste red spring couplets, light candles and burn bamboos or set off fireworks to ward off all the evil spirits.
According to this, Chinese New Year's Day or the Spring Festival is also called "Guo Nian," which means "surviving the Nian". The red also becomes the most popular color for festival celebration and dressing code.
Strassberg, R. E. (2002). A Chinese bestiary: Strange creatures from the guideways through mountains and seas. Univ of California Press.
Birrell, A. (Ed.). (1999). The Classic of Mountains and Seas. Penguin.