Everything to Know About the Lunar New Year, a Holiday Rich In History

·8 min read


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If you love learning about the cultural and historical details behind holidays, it's worth expanding your knowledge beyond just the most commercialized, Western holiday traditions, like putting up Christmas decorations or making a New Year's cocktail. Lunar New Year, or Chinese New Year, is a holiday that's rich in meaning and one of the most joyous times of year for those who celebrate. Falling between mid-January and late-February on the Gregorian calendar, the holiday is full of culinary and family traditions.

Still, it's not as different from the Western version of New Year's as you might think. Many view the Lunar New Year as a chance for a fresh start, and an opportunity to head into the new year with good luck. Though it might not be familiar to you if you don't celebrate at home, the holiday is actually one of the largest holidays in many East and Southeast Asian countries, according to National Geographic.

Like other holidays, Lunar New Year is full of traditional color themes, elaborate meals and get-togethers, and some superstitions, too. Though the exact Lunar New Year falls on different days each year, preparation for the celebration can begin up to two weeks in advance, beginning with an obligatory spring cleaning which is thought to sweep away bad luck from the past year. But that's not the only tradition surrounding the holiday.

When is Lunar New Year?

The exact dates of the Lunar New Year are decided by the Chinese Lunar Calendar, which changes every year. Usually, this means the holiday falls sometime in January or February. The celebration lasts for 16 days each year.

When is Lunar New Year this Year?

In 2022, the Lunar New Year celebrations begin on February 1. They will last until February 15, 2022, when the Lantern Festival will take place, a tradition which marks the end of the Lunar New Year festivities.

Lunar New Year Traditions in China

It is customary to decorate with the color red during Chinese New Year because it is a symbol of good luck. (Children are even given money in red envelopes called hong bao for protection and good fortune.)

There are different activities, traditions, food, and superstitions for each of the 15 days. According to ChineseNewYear.net, the second day of Chinese New Year is reserved for visiting the in-laws on the mother’s side of the family, since married daughters were considered a part of the husband's family in ancient China and cannot spend Chunjie with her parents. The times have changed, but the tradition of spending the second day with the mother's side of the family is still a special custom that many families keep. The celebration concludes on the 15th day with the Lantern Festival, where children carry around lanterns and families eat glutinous rice balls together.

But the reunion dinner on New Year’s Eve is perhaps the most important event of the holiday, as it's the only time of the year many people can travel home and spend time with their families. Many of the dishes served at the reunion dinner and throughout the holiday carry important meaning. According to Food Network, fish signifies wealth and prosperity as the Chinese word for “fish” sounds similar to the word for “plenty.” Other traditional fare includes: rice cakes, which symbolize success in one’s career; oranges, which symbolize good fortune; dumplings, which symbolize wealth; glutinous rice balls, which symbolize family togetherness and reunion; and long noodles that symbolize long life).

Photo credit: Kilito Chan - Getty Images
Photo credit: Kilito Chan - Getty Images

Chinese New Year also welcomes a new animal from the Chinese zodiac. a repeating 12-year cycle where each year is represented by an animal and its attributes. This year, 2022, ushers in the Year of the Water Tiger, which only occurs every 60 years, according to Marca.com. To wish someone a happy and prosperous new year in Mandarin Chinese, you say, "gong xi fa cai, xin nian kuai le." This translates to, “Wish you happiness and prosperity! Happy New Year!"

Lunar New Year Superstitions in China

One superstition that is associated with Lunar New Year has to do with something surprising: Hair. As the superstition goes, cutting or dyeing your hair on the first day of the Lunar New year is a big no-no. As an article on CNN says, "Washing your hair or cutting it off is seen as washing your fortune away and dramatically reduces chances of prosperity in the year ahead."

It may be easy enough to avoid big hair changes on the first day of the holiday, but consider how you feel about not buying books or other reading material for the length of the two-week celebration. According to the same CNN.com article, "The Chinese word for 'book' (shū) sounds exactly the same as the word for 'lose,' so buying a book right after ringing in the New Year is considered an invitation for bad luck." This applies to giving someone else books, too, which is also considered a bad omen.

Lunar New Year Traditions in Vietnam

The Vietnamese Lunar New Year, also known as Tết, is one of the most important festivals in Vietnam. According to Vietnam Insider, the name “Tết Nguyen Dan” is Sino-Vietnamese for “feast of the very first morning” as Tết celebrates the first day of spring and the beginning of a new year. Anything that happens on the first day is believed to determine an individual or family’s fate for the whole year, and the first visitor of a household is an honor reserved only for close relatives and friends.

Tết celebrations generally last for three days, but some traditions can last up to a week. According to Trip Savvy, “the first day of Tết is usually spent with immediate family, the second day is for visiting friends, and the third day is dedicated to teachers and visiting temples." Vietnamese people decorate for the holiday in red and yellow, the colors of good fortune and prosperity. Flowers are an important decoration for this holiday, according to Vietnam Travel, as many have meanings that tie into the Lunar New Year. In the North, it is common to see pink peach blossoms (hoa đào) that symbolize happiness, peace, good health, and wealth. In the South, yellow apricot flowers (hoa mai) with five petals are said to represent peace, pleasure, longevity, convenience, and happiness.

According to Andrea Nguyen of the New York Times, celebrating this holiday is described as “an Tết”, which means “eating the New Year” in Vietnamese, so it is no surprise that food is considered an important part of this holiday. Banh chung, or a square, steamed sticky rice cake stuffed with beans and pork and wrapped in banana leaves, is the most typical dish during Tết celebrations. It can typically only be found during this holiday, and its square shape represents an offering of the earth, as the earth was perceived to be square in ancient Vietnam, according to Vietnam Discovery.

Photo credit: JethuynhCan - Getty Images
Photo credit: JethuynhCan - Getty Images

There are some Lunar New Year traditions that Chinese and Vietnam cultures share. For example, children also receive money in red envelopes, called lì xì in Vietnamese, for good luck. Lion and dragon dances, as well as firecrackers and fireworks, are popular during both Chunjie and Tết to scare away evil spirits and misfortune. Vietnamese traditions also follow the Chinese zodiac, but Vietnam Insider notes that the fourth animal sign in the cycle is a cat, instead of a rabbit like in Chinese culture.

Tết is a beautiful celebration with floral decorations, rich customs, and lots and lots of food. Family and friends greet one another with well-wishes for the year ahead. To wish someone “Happy New Year” during Tết, just say, "chúc mừng năm mới!"

Lunar New Year Traditions in Korea

In Korea, Lunar New Year is called Seollal and lasts for three days, according to Asia Society. People in Korea celebrate by donning traditional clothing called hanbok, as the colorful outfits symbolize hopes for a bright future. The practice of bowing, or sebae, is also an important custom during Seollal. According to Korean Class 101, Younger members of the family will kneel on the ground and bow one’s head to the floor during sebae as a way to pay respect to elders in the family and bless them with good health and fortune. In exchange, the elders give sebaedon, new, crisp banknotes in decorative envelopes or beautiful silk pouches.

A traditional dish served during Seollal is tteokguk (rice cake soup). Although this dish is enjoyed year-round, it carries special significance during the holiday as is it believed that people need to eat this soup in order to become a year older, according to Korean Culture Blog. Other dishes that are common to eat during Seollal are jeon (pancake fritters), galbi jim (braised short ribs), japchae (sweet potato noodles), and hangwa (Korean traditional cookies).

Photo credit: Jong heung lee - Getty Images
Photo credit: Jong heung lee - Getty Images

Beyond eating and paying respects, playing games together is an essential part of celebrating Seollal. According to Asia Society, Yut Nori is a traditional board game where players throw sticks instead of die, and GoStop is a card game that often involves betting small amounts of money. GoStop is played with a set of cards called hwatu which is very common in Korean households, similarly to how a standard deck of 52 cards is typical in Western households.

In Korean, the most common Seollal greeting is, "saehae bok mani badeuseyo." Translated into English, it means, “Please receive a lot of luck or blessings in the New Year."

Other Lunar New Year Traditions

Lunar New Year is a popular holiday in many Asian countries, not just China, Vietnam, and Korea. Other countries that celebrate Lunar New Year include Cambodia, Thailand, the Philippines, Singapore, and Malaysia. Even within those countries, customs will vary from region to region, household to household. Regardless of where the celebration is taking place, a few common themes always emerge: reuniting with family, sharing delicious dishes with special meanings, and preparing for a new beginning.

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