According to the ChinaCulture site, Guo Nian refers to the arrival of spring. Guo means to pass over and Nian year.
Legend has it that in ancient China there lived a horned monster named "Year" who lived at the bottom of the sea only to climb onshore on New Year's Eve to devour cattle and kill people. Therefore every New Year's Eve villagers would flee along with family members to the mountains to avoid the monster.
One New Year's Eve, villagers in Peach Blossom were preparing to flee when they came across an old beggar. With a stick in his hand and a bag on his arm, his eyes twinkled like stars and his beard was as white as silver.
However, only a grandmother living in the east of the village gave him food and then told him to flee to escape the monster. But he just stroked his beard and said: "If you allow me to stay at your home for the night, I'm sure to drive the monster away." She was not convinced and fled with the others.
Around midnight, Year rushed into the village, where he found the atmosphere quite different from the previous year. The house of the grandmother was brilliantly illuminated, with bright red paper stuck on doors. Shocked, the monster gave a strange loud cry.
Year was intimidated by all he saw and as he approached the red door, there came sounds of explosions. Trembling all over, he dared not take a step further. It turned out the color red, flame and explosions were what he feared most and, when the door of the house was thrown open, an old man in a red robe burst out laughing. The monster was scared out of his wits and ran away.
Now you know why red is auspicious, since red paper, red cloth, red candles and exploding firecrackers are the magical weapons that drove monster Year away.
Since then, every New Year's Eve, families stick on their doors antithetical couplets written on red paper, light firecrackers, keep their homes brilliantly illuminated and stay up late into the night.
Kerby Kuek has published 15 books on feng shui, inner alchemy, Taoism and metaphysics. He can be contacted at www.kerbykuek.com