History

Why does Chinese New Year have 12 different animals?

Good news, rats: your time has come. This Friday, January 25, marks Chinese New Year — known across most of the world as Lunar New Year and in Mainland China as the Lantern Festival — and with it the Year of the Rat. This celebration is especially fortuitous, as it actually marks the beginning of a new 12-year cycle. You probably know which animal's year you were born during (the other 11 are, in order, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig), but do you know why creatures play such an important role in the first place?

When is it?

First things first — literally. Chinese New Year doesn't take place on the same day every year, because of its lunar connection; it begins on the new moon that takes place between January 21 and February 20. (Last year it began on February 5, while in 2018 it wasn't until February 16.)

exxorian/iStock

The numbers

As for the numbering, it has to do with the Chinese zodiac and is actually simpler than you might think: 12 aligns as closely as possible with Jupiter's orbital period (read: how long it takes to fully orbit the sun) of 11.86 years. Along with the sun and moon, Jupiter played a vital role in the formation of ancient Chinese methods of both telling and classifying time.

The animals have different connotations, of course; rats are considered adaptable, observant, and industrious. They were also seen as a sign of surplus, and married couple hoping for children would pray to them for good fortune.

Rats are also associated with the Earthly Branch 子, or Zi, and the beginning of a new day. So if you find that your 2020 isn't off to a great start, take some inspiration from our furry friends and give it another shot.