Learning About Lunar New Year

Lunar New Year, also called the Spring Festival, is a holiday celebrated by a multitude of Asian countries. People gather to celebrate for fifteen days, from the new moon until the full moon. Each country has different ways to celebrate, though each culture has twelve zodiacs or signs that each year follows. This year’s zodiac is the Tiger (in Chinese mythology) and the celebration starts on February 1st. In recent years, many more Americans have observed the holiday and it’s traditions. 

China – Chūnjié

“Xīnnián kuàilè” (Happy New Year)

There are many origins of Lunar New Year (called Chunjie in China) but one of the most popular from Chinese culture is that of Nian, a beast that feasts on human flesh. Despite these dark beginnings, many believed that celebrating with loud noises, bright red paper decorations, and lanterns would chase away Nian. This is how most of the Lunar New Year traditions began. A myth that goes back to ancient times, known as the Great Race, explores the order and origins of each of the Chinese zodiacs. The Jade Emperor, ruler of the heavens, devised a plan to tell time by racing twelve animals and putting their finishing order in the Zodiac Calendar. From this we get the twelve Chinese zodiac signs: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and pig. However, these zodiac signs can differ depending on what country and culture it’s in. 

Today, many in Asian countries begin celebrating by cleaning the home. Many believe this tradition is a spring cleaning of sorts and rids all the bad from the previous year. Many spend this time with family on New year’s eve and New Year’s day. During these celebrations, red envelopes or lai see, that contain small amounts of money, are passed out to family members. Over the next two weeks many dance and set off fireworks to celebrate the New Year. Yuanxiao (Lantern Festival) is celebrated on the night of the full moon. People put up colorful lanterns and eat traditional foods such as Tang Yuan, a traditional Chinese dessert made of rice flour and black sesame seeds. 

Korea – Seollal

“Saehae bok mani badeuseyo”(South Korean, May you receive lots of luck in the new year) 

 “Saehaereul chuckhahabnida” (North Korean, Congratulations on the new year)

In Korea, Korean New Year usually lasts three days: the day before Korean New Year, Korean New Year itself, and the day after Korean New Year. Influenced by China, Seollal is based off of the lunar cycle as well, organized by the same zodiac signs. The celebration of Korean New Year dates all the way back to 57 B.C., starting in the Silla Kingdom. Seollal focuses on the giving and receiving of gifts, not just to family members but to fellow employees and special people in one’s life. A popular Korean game played during this time of the year is called ‘Yut Nori’. Yut Nori uses Yut sticks instead of dice. The aim of the game is to get all of your teams “mal” around the board and back to the start before the other team. The other team however, can sabotage your mal by landing on it and sending it back to the start, similar to the popular English game Sorry!

            One of the most popular dishes eaten during Seollal is ‘Tteokguk’ (rice cake soup). The white color of the rice cakes signifies purity and the soup represents one of the ways to start off the year with a fresh start. Another food eaten during Seollal is Jeon. Jeon is a pancake-like dish that often contains green onions in it. There are many variations of Jeon, some containing seafood, and some containing kimchi. 

Vietnam – Tết

“Chúc Mừng Năm Mới” (Happy New Year) 

Just like Chinese tradition, those that celebrate Tết will clean their homes before the new year. Many clean family shrines and add new offerings, believing that ancestors and those that have passed will come back for the new year. Also like in Chinese tradition, many will receive red envelopes and celebrate with drums and fireworks to chase spirits away. 

In Vietnamese tradition, many people decorate their homes with flowers and trees like peach blossom trees, orchids, orange trees, and chrysanthemums. As in most cultures, people tend to travel a lot and have New year’s celebrations with their families. In these celebrations, platters of traditional fruit are eaten with family to honor ancestors. More food can include bánh chưng, rice cakes made with mung beans and pork. 

Lunar New Year in America

With these traditions spread to the west, many citizens in the United States celebrate Lunar New Year. In North America, cultures mix and blend, creating one giant New Year’s celebration which includes customs from many different countries. However, you do not need to be of Asian descent to appreciate and celebrate these customs. So however you celebrate, or if you celebrate at all, have a Happy New Year! 🧧

“Check out the chart above to learn which Chinese zodiac sign you are.”


    • LanternGraphic: “Learn how to make paper lanterns to decorate for Lunar New Year.”
      (Grace Muliero created in notability)


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