Lunar New Year, commonly known as Chinese New Year, is a 15-day spring celebration often considered the most important holiday in many Asian countries and across the Asian diaspora, as well as in China. “Just as Christmas is a highlight of the year for many Western people, so is the Spring Festival, or Lunar New Year, to the Chinese all over the world,” says Dr. Jianguo Chen, an associate professor of Chinese at the University of Delaware. This year, Lunar New Year begins on Sunday, January 22, 2023, and welcomes in the Year of the Rabbit.
Believed to have originated during China’s Shang Dynasty, which began in 1600 BCE, Lunar New Year carries with it a trove of traditions—including things to do, avoid and eat—that are based on a combination of history, symbolism, superstition and myth. One major theme for every Lunar New Year: Attracting good luck and avoiding bad luck for the year ahead.
Lunar New Year was originally an agricultural holiday that commemorated the end of winter and the beginning of spring, according to the 354-day traditional Chinese Lunar calendar, which is based on the 12 cycles of the moon. That's opposed to the Solar, or Gregorian, calendar that marks how long it takes the earth to orbit the sun and is used as the basis for the calendar in the United States and most countries.
Whether you’re an immigrant, Asian American or an ally, take Lunar New Year as an opportunity to reaffirm your goals and recharge your hopeful energy for the coming year. After all, Lunar New Year is about starting with a clean slate, cleansing the negative and welcoming the positive and setting intentions for a prosperous, lucky and fulfilling year. Set yourself up for good luck this upcoming Year of the Rabbit by starting anew with a positive mindset and joining in on some of the following Lunar New Year traditions.
What are the traditions of Lunar New Year?
Over thousands of years, people celebrating Lunar New Year developed many practices that help start the year fresh, usher in good luck and ward off bad luck. Each country and every individual celebrates Lunar New Year a little bit differently with distinctive traditions, foods and festivities, but here are a few of the most common.
It makes sense to welcome in a new era with a cleanse, and those who celebrate Lunar New Year often prepare for the holiday by cleaning their houses from top to bottom, says Chen. “It is customary for people to completely clean their houses to get rid of bad fortune from the old year.”
In China, after cleaning, people decorate their houses with the color red in the form of festive scrolls, folk painting, paper-cuts and lanterns. “Bright red is the preeminent color of festivity, symbolic of good health and fortune, wealth, prosperity and longevity,” he says.
For some, cleaning before the Lunar New Year is important — they consider it bad luck to clean during the 15-day celebration. They believe that the good luck of Lunar New Year begins at midnight on the first day and consider it unlucky to clean until the end of the holiday. However, the tradition varies widely with some people actually dedicating the entire first day of Lunar New Year to cleaning and organizing their homes.
Paying off debts and avoiding borrowing or lending money
Another important tradition: Cementing your financial fortune for the upcoming year by paying off your debts prior to the first day of Lunar New Year, and making sure not to borrow or lend money during the 15-day celebration. Superstition says that handling money through borrowing or lending during Lunar New Year might lead to financial struggles in the year ahead.
Not cutting or changing your hair
The Chinese character for “hair” is the same as the first character in the word for “prosper.” Some say that cutting or changing your hair on the first day or even first month of the new Lunar year is like throwing or washing away your fortune. Many limit this superstition to the first day of the holiday, and just avoid washing or cutting their hair, or even showering, on new year’s day.
Giving and receiving red envelopes
In pop culture, nothing signifies Lunar New Year more than little red envelopes adorned in gold and stuffed with cash. During a visit to older relatives, people are usually gifted money in these red envelopes, known as Hónɡ bāo in China. In the Philippines, the red envelopes are called Ang Pao and Vietnam calls them “Li xi,” or “lucky money.” In Korea, however, money from the elders called Sae bae don, translated as “new year’s money,” is usually given not in red but in white or patterned envelopes.
Buying new clothes
What’s a better way to put the “new year, new you” attitude into action than a refreshed wardrobe? During Lunar New Year, some people purchase new everyday clothing to symbolize a clean slate and attract good luck, while others buy new traditional clothing to wear when they visit family. In Korea, people wear traditional garb called Hanbok for formal occasions and holidays, including Lunar New Year. Women’s Hanbok consists of a long skirt and a short jacket in colorful patterns and lustrous materials. In China, women can wear Qípáo or Cheongsam, a high-necked and often short-sleeved dress, for the holiday.
Not buying or giving books
The Chinese word for “book” is pronounced the same way as the word “lose,” so some believe that buying books for yourself or others can forecast bad luck for the upcoming year. But not to worry, bookish ones! You can buy and gift as many books before and after the 15-day celebration, and there are no rules around reading the books you already have.
Being kind and generous and avoiding fights or arguments
They say that what happens on the first day of the new lunar year sets the tone for the year ahead. Being your best self and speaking kindly of yourself and others brings good luck for the year. Avoid directing negative language or energy toward others on this first day (and all days!) because it could mean you’re in for a year of relationship issues and draining arguments, and nobody has the time for that. Watch your words when talking about others or yourself, especially avoiding ones related to death, killing, poverty or illness—traditions says foregoing these terms can help shield yourself and your loved ones from tragedy and misfortune in the upcoming year.
Watching Lion and Dragon Dances
In China, Lunar New Year ends with the Lantern Festival, a celebration that includes folk dancing, traditional games, lantern parades and dragon and lion dances. People also eat glutinous rice balls, called Yuánxiāo or Tāngyuán, which are sweet treats with various fillings like black sesame, peanuts, red bean, rose petals and rock sugar. According to Chen, in China, the Lantern Festival is sometimes known as China’s Valentine’s Day, where singles hope to meet their new flame. He says, “Needless to say, setting off firecrackers is an important part of the Chinese New Year and also of the Lantern Festival.”
While we greet people in January with a basic “Happy New Year” in the U.S., various Asian countries have different sayings in their respective languages. In Korea, to honor elders, people say “Saehae bok mani badeuseyo,” which means, “Please receive a lot of good fortune for the New Year.” Chen says that in China, people greet each other with phrases like “Gōng xǐ fā cái” in Mandarin and “Gung hei faat coi” in Cantonese, which mean “Wishing you a happy and prosperous Chinese New Year.” In Vietnam, people say, “Chúc mừng năm mới,” which simply means “Happy New Year” in Vietnamese.
Connecting with family
Like any other major holiday, Lunar New Year is a time to be with your loved ones, and for many, it is the one time a year they travel back to see their families. “Typically, on the first day of the festival, people would pay a visit to their elderly and respected by offering good wishes,” says Chen. Travel guides often warn of congested streets and overbooked international flights during the period. Coming from different parts of the globe, several generations of family gather to eat the family reunion dinner, catch up, and reminisce during Lunar New Year. If you can’t make it to see your family in person, a phone call, Facetime or virtual celebration is a must.
What foods are traditionally eaten for Lunar New Year?
Like many holidays around the world, Lunar New Year is celebrated with delicious foods and feasts. “Holidays are about eating, and the Spring Festival [in China] is particularly so,” says Chen. Each country, community and family has its own Lunar New Year delicacies, but here are a few common ones you might taste.
While some associate moon cakes with Lunar New Year, the delicacy is actually used for the Mid-Autumn Festival. Dumplings, or Jiǎozi in Mandarin, are a staple for Lunar New Year celebrations. “Since the shape of Jiǎozi looks like gold ingots used as currency in the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), eating Jiǎozi, so it was believed folklorically, would bring prosperity,” says Chen. “Some parents would even hide a big clean coin inside a Jiǎozi for the lucky kid to find as a table game on Chinese New Year’s Eve.”
Rice Cake Soup
For Seollal, Korea’s Lunar New Year, Koreans eat Tteokguk, literally translated as “rice cake soup.” The savory soup is made with thin disk-shaped rice cakes that resemble coins, which symbolize prosperity. In Korea, they say you get one year older when you eat a bowl of rice cake soup. The dish, which is made with water, small chunks of beef, green onion, egg, and rice cakes, is predominantly white in color, which signifies purity and new beginnings.
In some parts of China, people eat Chángshòu Miàn, which are known as “long-life noodles” or “longevity noodles.” These noodles can be as long as two feet and are served uncut, either fried or submerged in a broth. Symbolically, the longer the noodle you eat, the longer you’ll live. According to superstition, take care not to cut the noodle while cooking so you don’t accidentally cut your lifeline short.
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