My mom asked about this, so since I had to look up the info anyway....
Chinese New Year starts on February 7 in China and Europe, but on February 6 in the U.S. (from coast to coast). Although Hawaii might be on the 7th, I don't know.
More info on Chinese New Year here: http://www.chinesefortunecalendar.com/2008.htm
It's a little confusing, because if you look further down the page it says the new year starts on February 4. This is because the Chinese astrological months are not in sync with the western calendar and there are weirdnesses in the system.
The new year is the Year of the Earth (brown) Rat. We are leaving the Fire element and entering the Earth element this year. Rat's base element is water, and water and earth don't always mix well, so this may lead to some interesting things happening. Things may appear more stable than they are, in some cases (although at least one web site says that Earth's influence may lead to fewer scandals - one can only hope).
There are 12 signs and 5 elements in the Chinese calendar. Each element is dominant for two years in a row, and it takes 60 years to go completely through the entire cycle of animals and elements. The Rat is the first animal in the Chinese Zodiac cycle. Some western people object to being born in the year of the rat, also the years of the snake, pig, etc. Each animal has its good and not-so-good points though, even the mighty dragon.
In general, the new year starts on the first new moon after the first full moon after the Winter Solstice. The Chinese Calendar is a combination of Solar and Lunar influences. Why start on a new moon? Many holidays in many cultures are celebrated on full moons, so maybe this seems like a strange thing to some people.
But the Chinese new year is observed over a period of two weeks (15 days). And in fact, preparations must start before the new year is ushered in! Much cleaning must be done, food gathered in, debts must be paid off (or in this day and age of revolving credit and mortgages, at least paid up for the month), decorations put up, and New Year's Eve food prepared.
We usually buy some of the food and decorations, if we're able. In fact, we really should go shopping either this week or early next week, because otherwise some things will be sold out at the local Asian markets. I also have some decorations I re-use from year to year of course. But the couplets are really supposed to be new for each year. Since we are in a new home, I hope to do something about that this year -- either buy new ones, or copy the old ones out myself. I'm not very good with Chinese calligraphy, but I get by.
I think it would be good to be more observant this year in general, although we'll have to make exceptions for my PT, of course.
Ideally, one has a nice clean house, and all inhabited rooms have light in them on new year's eve. We compromise and make sure the lights are on within an hour of midnight, so we don't use lots of electricity all night. The feast is just for the immediate family living in the home (just the two of us, since only we celebrate it), with some offered to the ancestors of course, because they are a part of your immediate family.
Traditional Chinese families burn incense and also paper money, which is 'sent' over to the ancestors to help make the afterlife more comfortable. Don't know if anyone believes that or not these days, but they still do it -- just in case, you know.
At midnight you are supposed to open the doors and windows and say "Happy New Year!". This welcomes in the new good luck. This is also easier to do if you live in a small home.... we opt for the doors only usually, although I might be willing to add in the window at the end of the hall way, since there aren't any outer doors at that end of the apartment.
Then you close the doors and windows and put red paper over the doorways, to keep the luck sealed in overnight. Families stay indoors the first day of new year especially, and then over the next week start visiting with close family and then gradually more people. On the tenth day you can have a big party with friends and such, and by the 15th day is the biggest celebrations (community events).
Also on the first day, as well as no travelling or receiving visitors, there is supposed to be no cooking or cleaning. There is plenty of food left over from the late night feast anyway, and sweeping isn't allowed because you might sweep the new good luck out the door. I think this at least partly was included because if you have been up all night preparing and then having a small feast, you are too tired to do anything the next day anyway ;)
The belief is that whatever you do on the first day is what you'll be doing for the rest of the year. One year we were working at Birka on the first day, and for sure we were working and travelling a lot for the rest of the year!
Traditional Feast Foods for the Eve. We don't observe everything to do with this, but maybe this year I'll try a little more, not sure. Usually we go to a favored restaurant and order up favorite dishes, and I cook up some of the easier stuff. But most restaurants cut everything up into small pieces, and you're supposed to serve the bird whole this night (something about cutting up the luck into small pieces if it's done the other way). I don't think many people observe the whole bird thing much anymore though. Well, we'll see what we have time and energy for this year.