What Is the Lunar New Year, How Is It Celebrated and More Facts About the Holiday
The holiday, which is celebrated across multiple countries in east Asia, is about welcoming a new year with hopes for luck and prosperity
Out with the old, in with the new! The Lunar New Year is all about ushering in luck and prosperity with family. Celebrated by more than 1.5 billion people each year, the holiday is rich in tradition and meaning, which vary from culture to culture. Read on to learn more!
What is the Lunar New Year?
The Lunar New Year is a holiday that marks the first new moon of the lunisolar calendar, which is the calendar traditionally used in many east Asian countries including China, Vietnam, Singapore and South Korea. In these and other Asian countries, it is one of the most important holidays of the year!
Many cultures use the Gregorian calendar to count the passage of time, but some use different means. The Gregorian calendar used by most of the world does not keep track of the phases of the moon and sun, whereas the lunisolar calendar does. This is why the Lunar New Year falls on different dates each year.
More than 1.5 billion people celebrate the Lunar New Year, with typical celebrations taking place over multiple days, sometimes up to 15 depending on the culture celebrating.
When is the Lunar New Year?
The Lunar New Year typically falls between January 20 and February 21 on the Gregorian calendar. In 2021, the Lunar New Year falls on February 12.
Why do we say Lunar New Year instead of Chinese New Year?
Using Lunar New Year is preferred because it's more inclusive to other Asian New Year celebrations and the holiday is known by different names in different countries. For example, in China it is called Chūn Jié, in Vietnam it is known as Tết, in Korea it is Seollal and in Tibet it is called Losar. Additionally, it is known as Spring Festival.
What does The Year of the Ox mean?
Every Lunar New Year corresponds with an animal from the Chinese zodiac, which consists of 12 animals and cycles through over 12 years. 2021 is the Year of the Ox, which is the second sign in the Chinese zodiac calendar. Oxen are seen as hardworking, reliable, positive and honest, and according to Chinese astrologers, people born in ox years are trustworthy and faithful.
Recent Years of the Ox are 1961, 1973, 1985, 1997 and 2009. There is an additional five-year cycle relating to the five elements (earth, fire, wood, metal and water), which means there's a 60-year cycle between the elements and the Zodiac signs. This year is the Year of the Metal Ox; the last one was in 1961.
What colors should you wear for the Lunar New Year?
Black and white are considered to be bad omens as they are typically reserved for mourning. Those who celebrate should wear bright clothes, especially the holiday's traditional lucky color: red. This year, blue and purple are considered lucky colors. (For extra luck, you can buy all new clothes in these colors; new clothes from head to toe are thought to represent a fresh start.) Decorations for the holiday are typically red and gold, as well.
Red is the most popular color for Lunar New Year celebrations because of its traditional associations with happiness and good fortune, wealth and auspiciousness. It also has roots in the origins of the Chinese holiday; the color red (along with loud noise and fire) was instrumental in warding off evil spirits, hence the red lanterns and firecrackers associated with the celebrations.
How do people typically celebrate the Lunar New Year?
With so many countries celebrating, the Lunar New Year is a holiday rich in tradition. Here are a just few that are often associated with the holiday. Keep in mind that there are many, many more and that different traditions and superstitions are associated with different cultures.
Sweeping of the Grounds
The celebrations for the Lunar New Year last for fifteen days, starting with a traditional sweeping of the home, according to Jan Stuart, a curator at the Freer and Sackler Galleries at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art. This serves to "drive out any misfortune, bad luck or any bad influences."
Just don't clean the next day! You don't want to sweep away all of the good luck that you got when the clock struck midnight!
The holiday begins with a reunion dinner with one's family. As a result, billions travel to visit relatives for the celebration. This is known as Chunyun, which is the 40-day period of travel surrounding the Lunar New Year. According to CNN, it is the largest human migration on the planet." In 2020, the outlet reported that 3 billion trips were expected.
Of course, with COVID-19 restrictions and social distancing rules, travel is expected to be limited this year as people take their celebrations virtual.
Distribution of Envelopes
One tradition typically associated with the holiday is the distribution of red envelopes (called lai see in Cantonese, hóng bāo in Mandarin and lì xì in Thai) filled with money. Older relatives give the envelopes to younger children, a custom that has evolved through the years and originated from a time when people would swap coins to ward off evil spirits. In Korea, money isn't necessarily presented in a red envelope, but given to younger members of the family after performing a bow for their elders.
Celebrating with Meaningful (and Delicious) Meals
The holiday's traditional dishes, which can include steamed whole fish, dumplings and spring rolls, often have a larger symbolic meaning (for example, tang yuan, or sweet rice balls, symbolize family togetherness). And of course, the meal itself has meaning: Chef Vicky Cheng told the Washington Post, "We believe for the first day of the year you must eat well, because [then] the rest of the year you'll eat well." Learn more about traditional dishes for many Lunar New Year celebrations and their meanings here.
Giving Tangerines and Oranges
Oranges and tangerines are also a traditional gift for the new year, as they are seen to represent luck and wealth, respectively. The Mandarin words for tangerine and orange bear resemblance to the Mandarin words for gold and good luck, making them particularly meaningful for the holiday.
Not Washing (or Cutting) Your Hair
New year, not so new you! In the Chinese language, the character for 'hair' is also the same as the first character in the word that means 'prosper,' and so washing or cutting your hair is seen as literally washing all of that good luck right down the drain if you do so on the first day of the new year.
Or Cutting Your Noodles!
Traditionally eaten on the holiday, longevity noodles symbolize a long life, so it's considered bad luck to cut them before or while eating. Other superstitions include not buying shoes, borrowing money, napping during festivities or talking about death.
Fireworks Displays and Parades
Fireworks are a mark of the holiday, as are lanterns, because they are thought to ward off bad spirits. This is also the reason for traditional dances and performances like the Dragon Dance, Lion Dance, Fan Dance, Phoenix Dance and more.
The Lantern Festival
The Lantern Festival marks the end of the holiday and first full moon of the lunisolar calendar. It is often marked by a beautiful display of lanterns that symbolize love and hope.