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While many cultures all over the world celebrate the Lunar New Year, perhaps some of the most festive and highly-visible celebrations come from East Asian and Southeast Asian communities and diaspora. To honor the moment, we spoke to some contributors and friends of Condé Nast Traveler to check in and learn what Lunar New Year means to them, and how they’re celebrating the incoming Year of the Dragon. Spoiler alert: red envelopes and dumpling parties abound.
If you’re game to fête the Lunar New Year, here’s how you can get involved in various cities across the country, from New York and San Francisco, to Houston and Las Vegas. And if you’re in the mood for gift-giving, we’ve got you covered with this guide (with many recs coming from AAPI-founded brands). No matter how you celebrate, it’s all about looking to the future with clear intention and surrounding yourself with the people you love—or, at the very least, having some auspicious noodles to ensure a long life ahead.
Throwing a dumpling party for togetherness—and maybe prosperity
“Growing up, Lunar New Year was always primarily an eating marathon, usually at the homes of family friends. Ever since living on my own in New York City, Lunar New Year has always been a fun opportunity to throw a dumpling party, since dumplings are a classic food for the occasion. The shape of a perfectly folded dumpling vaguely resembles a golden ingot, an ancient currency, hence wealth. I don't know if it brings anyone wealth, but it's a good way to feed a crowd—and not have to do all the cooking myself. I put out a bowl of pork-and-chive filling and throw a stack of dumpling skins on the table, and everyone gets busy folding them. Some have a brief tutorial. Some people go off and invent their own ways to fold them.
Some years, it's fun to incorporate the animal year somehow. I remember one time, during the Year of the Ox, we had some cold beef short rib stew leftovers that went into the dumplings. Once they were piping hot, they were soupy and so delicious. For the Year of the Dog, we had dumplings with chopped up hot dogs and sauerkraut—“dog-plings"—with a mustardy dipping sauce. And we invited dogs to that party, too, so there were 12 dogs running around my one-bedroom apartment, trying to eat dumpling scraps.” —Cathy Erway, contributor and author of “How the Scallion Pancake Became the Most Versatile Bread in America”
Passing down traditions to the next generation
“What I love about Lunar New Year is that it's kind of a long holiday. It’s got events on every day of the week. I grew up in Taiwan, where we’d get at least a full week off to celebrate it. So I’ve always associated it with extended celebrations. And because it’s drawn out, there’s less pressure: You get to see everyone—your family and your friends. There was always a schedule: The first couple of days are very much associated with your direct family; there’s a day associated with going back to your mother’s house and her parents. Then after all that, you’re seeing friends. Traditionally, people tend to go home—or come home—for the Lunar New Year, so, if they lived in Shanghai or Hong Kong or even further away, they might come back to Taipei to celebrate. That was how I got to see a lot of relatives or family friends that I hadn’t seen in a long time.
When I left Taipei and moved to New York, the way that I celebrated Lunar New Year became very different. Certainly, it wasn’t like, going to big banquet feasts or having these million-course dinners at home. But there's still always some aspect of getting friends together—of eating Chinese food in some way, shape, or form; of eating auspicious foods like noodles for longevity, fish for surplus, oranges for wealth. My traditions have had to evolve; in the pandemic, we had to adjust and just be like, ‘Okay, let’s do takeout and support our favorite local Chinese restaurant.’ It’s a very adaptable holiday, which I like.
More recently, I have kids now, and that’s reshaped how I think about Lunar New Year because I now have all these traditions that I want to pass along to my children. When they're older and ready, I want to tell them the story of how Lunar New Year came to be—about all the auspicious food and the red envelopes. This year, we’ll be seeing my husband’s family, and I’m going to make sure I see my own too. But what I'm most excited about is that my friends and I are kick-starting a mahjong club. A bunch of us have just returned from being home in Asia, where we got back into playing the game, and so we want to continue that tradition here in New York. Ultimately, Lunar New Year is a way to socialize, to be in touch with my community, and stay connected to this big part of my culture.” —Steph Wu, former articles director and current editor-in-chief of Eater
Taking time to connect with your family and homeland
“I grew up in a Vietnamese family in Houston, which has a massive Vietnamese population. Celebrating the Lunar New Year—or Tết, as we call it—was just like celebrating Christmas. Without fail, we’d get together every year at my grandparents’ house. We’d feast and do the Vietnamese tradition of offering a blessing to each aunt, uncle, and grandparent; in return, they’d hand us a red envelope with money inside. To me, Tết always represented family time. Even when I was living in New York for 12 years, I would come home to Houston for almost every Tết. It connects me to my family, to homecoming. Nostalgia is what I associate most with the Lunar New Year.
But this year, it’s a little bit of an inversion: I won’t be going home to see my family for Tết, but I’ll be spending it here in Saigon, where I’ve lived and worked for almost two years. I’m really excited to experience it in this new way. Even though I’m not physically with my parents and the rest of my family, it’s kind of like I’m still connected to them by being here—so many of their memories of Tết are from this place, and I’ll kind of get to see what all the hype is about. I’ve been driving around town and seeing people setting up for it. Every restaurant has lanterns hanging. Up and down the sidewalks, there are pots and ports of the yellow Mai flower that symbolizes health and prosperity. There’s this really huge energy around it that I’m excited to see play out over the next few weeks.
Of course, Tết is a little bit commercialized the way that Christmas is, but it just speaks to how big and how ubiquitous it is. All of Saigon is going to shut down for like a week, so I'm going to stock up on groceries. Many of my friends here are traveling back to their hometowns and their families, but some are staying in town, so I’ll celebrate with them. We'll go out to eat—some of the Western restaurants will be open, at least. We'll go walking through the streets to see the lanterns and flowers. It’ll be low-key, but it’ll be really special to just be here in Vietnam for Tết.” —Dan Q. Dao, contributor and author of “Houston—Where Vietnamese Flavors Meet Texas Smoke” and “Why I'm Moving to the Country My Parents Fled Decades Ago”
Finding a moment for rest
“I'm not big on celebrating holidays, at least not in the sense of unbreakable traditions. My family was never big on Christmas gifts. I skip the turkey at Thanksgiving. I only sometimes remember when it's my birthday. But no matter what, I somehow manage to surround myself with people I love on special days. This time, for Lunar New Year, I was feeling underwater at work and the holiday wasn't totally front-of-mind for me. So it was fortuitous when my friend Kyle Lucia Wu texted me with an invitation for a dinner party one Friday evening. ‘It’s slightly Lunar New Year-themed,’ she said. ‘Optional dress code: a hint of red!’ When I arrived, the table was immaculately set with bowls of rice, steamed dumplings in the shapes of bags of money, and a giant pot of lion's head soup. Kyle's partner Dan made cocktails; our mutual friend Jen offered me a spot next to her on the couch; I made new friends in Shirley and Kiran—all this to say, this Lunar New Year offered me a chance to slow down and take a breath, to break bread with folks I hadn't seen in a while, and with new people I'm keen to keep in my orbit. It was one of the best nights I've had in a while, and it reminded me of the special power of gathering people over a meal—no matter the occasion.” —Matt Ortile, associate editor
Creating your own traditions
“I was born in the US, and my parents are Taiwanese immigrants, so I was aware of Lunar New Year, but I didn’t really understand what it was. My mom would give me red envelopes with chocolate coins in them to give to my friends. I did it, but I didn't love it because I was, I think, one of three Asian Americans at my school—and I thought it made me stand out and different from everyone else. As I grew up, my family started to celebrate it a little bit more, but we’d do it privately at home. I admit that, as I entered adulthood, I didn’t take responsibility to learn more. I didn’t think too much of it—and I’d be like, ‘Oh yeah, it’s Lunar New Year. I know that.’ I knew little snippets of traditions, like wearing red for the occasion, but I never did anything official.
In 2023, I was asked to put together an editorial project for the Lunar New Year. At first, my reaction was: I’m not the right person for this. I don’t know what Lunar New Year is. I celebrate it how my family celebrates it, which is something unique to us. How could I act as an authority on this topic for so many different kinds of people who celebrate it in their own way? And I realized, that’s the thing—everyone has their own tradition. Everyone's figuring it out. Especially among children of immigrants, we honor the Lunar New Year in different ways. Some years, we do it big; other times, something more low-key. How you celebrate it doesn’t matter. It’s what you do with it that counts.
This year will be nice—I’m trying to get my cousins in the New York area together to do something fun. But no matter what, I have it as part of my yearly intentions. To embrace the festivities, I’ve started giving my friends Lunar New Year gifts instead of Christmas gifts. Even when life gets hectic, I’ll try to do a little something for it, even if it’s just grabbing a colleague and making them come eat dumplings with me for lunch.” —Rachel Chang, contributor and author of “8 American Cities That Are Going All Out for Lunar New Year”
Surrounding yourself with people you love
“In my Filipino family, we didn’t really celebrate the Lunar New Year while growing up. We didn’t have the same traditions as a lot of the Chinese Filipino families we knew. Everyone’s probably talked about red envelopes, right? At least, that I knew about. But it was only when I came to New York in 2017 when it became a more concrete part of my holiday and social calendar. My best friend Anjali—she’s Chinese Mongolian—always does something for the Lunar New Year. We’d have a dumpling party and fold dumplings and just gather folks to do this really fun activity. But also last year, we went to Chinatown. I loved seeing the parade in the streets with the dragon dancers and popping those party favors that stream out confetti. So for me, the occasion is really about gathering friends, bringing my community tighter around me—especially my Asian American friends in the city.
When I think of the traditions, I think of how my family celebrates the New Year—as in, January 1—with preparing the 13 different types of round fruits for prosperity, and I think that’s something that’s crossed over from Lunar New Year. But it always comes back to the red envelopes. I love giving them to my friends. But instead of money, I include candy and a nice note to that person. Prosperity and wealth can also mean just caring and togetherness and having each other. So I really enjoy celebrating Lunar New Year because I get to do it with the people I love.” —Abi Balingit, author of the cookbook Mayumu: Filipino American Desserts Remixed
Originally Appeared on Condé Nast Traveler