Lunar New Year: A Look Into One of the World's Largest Celebrations

For most Americans, the whirlwind rush of holiday festivities that begins with Thanksgiving typically concludes on New Year’s Day, but for several Asian countries — and many Asian-Americans — the festivities have only begun. 

On February 12, countries like China, Vietnam, South Korea and Taiwan (just to name a few) celebrated Lunar New Year, also known as Spring Festival. This two-week celebration marks the start of a new lunar cycle and corresponds to a different animal of the Chinese Zodiac each year — 2021 being the Year of the Ox. Unlike the “regular” new year that the rest of the world celebrates, which is based on the Gregorian calendar, Lunar New Year follows the lunisolar calendar and falls on a different day each year.

You may know this celebration as Chinese New Year, or maybe you’ve always known it as Lunar New Year. Either way, I’m here to clear up the confusion. Though the terms are used synonymously, Chinese New Year and Lunar New Year aren’t exactly the same. Lunar New Year is the best way to address the holiday in order to include every culture that celebrates. Since several Asian countries partake in Lunar New Year festivities, it wouldn’t be right to say “Happy Chinese New Year!” to a Vietnamese person celebrating, and vice versa. 

So, there you have it! I won’t lie, growing up the terms were used so interchangeably that I never knew the distinction until I was in middle school. But, nonetheless, I eagerly looked forward to all the Lunar New Year festivities my mom could fit into our tiny, suburban Florida home. Despite being so far from home each new year, my mom did her best to bring the celebration to us. 

Now, if there’s anything you’re going to want to remember about Lunar New Year, it’s the emphasis on good fortune, happiness and health in literally everything we do. From the foods you eat to the gifts you exchange — they’re all purposeful, symbolic and meant to help you thrive in the new year. With more than 1.5 billion people celebrating, let’s take a look at how one of the world’s largest celebrations takes place:

  1. 1. Food

    Fish Whole Steamed

    Beyond ushering in a prosperous new year, Lunar New Year is a time that brings families together. And what better way to do so than with a huge feast? That being said, a lot more goes into these elaborate family reunion dinners than you might think. The foods traditionally eaten are almost always layered with symbolic meaning: the name of the food said aloud, the method of preparation, and the way it’s served can all instill the meal with extra meaning, making it all the more important and special. Here are a few Lunar New Year dinner staples I grew up eating:

    Sweet Glutinous Rice Cake (Nian Gao): Sometimes translated as “new year cake,” nian gao is made out of glutinous rice flour and can either be served sweet or savory depending on where you’re from. Though the concept might sound strange to those who are unfamiliar with it, I grew up eating the sweet version of these dense and sticky cakes every Lunar New Year. Try thinking of it as mochi, but chewier, stickier, and without the fancy flavors. The cakes symbolize progress, advancement and growth. In Chinese, “nian” translates to “year,” and “gao” (糕) is a homonym for “gāo” (高), which means “tall,” “high,” or “expensive.”

    Tangerines/Oranges: Around Lunar New Year, don’t be surprised when you start to see suspicious amounts of tangerines and oranges popping up around your local China towns or in the home of someone you know that celebrates. Oranges and tangerines are the hallmark fruit of Lunar New Year. Similar to the case with new year cakes, the Chinese words for orange and tangerine are what imbue them with meaning. While tangerines symbolize good luck, oranges symbolize wealth or success — not to mention that their bright color symbolizes gold. With promises to bring in good luck and wealth, these fruits are regular visitors to every home and table during Lunar New Year. They’re traditionally served at the end of the meal, and also exchanged when you visit relatives. 

    Whole Fish: Fish is one of the most important symbolic dishes around Lunar New Year. You’ll see it at almost every meal during the holiday served in a multitude of ways. In another homonym case, the word for “fish” in Mandarin is “yú,” which is the same pronunciation for the word “leftover” or “surplus.” This translates into the idea that families want to have their abundance of food or wealth at the end of the year to roll over into the new year.

  2. 2. Traditions

    firework explosion

    Lunar New Year traditions can vary depending on the country in which you celebrate. Countries like South Korea, Vietnam and Mongolia all have their own ways of celebrating, but Chinese cultures mostly share the same set of customs. These are a few traditions that I grew up practicing:

    Red Envelopes: As one of the more well-known Lunar New Year traditions, you might already be familiar with the sight of these beautiful red envelopes. Known as hóngbāo in Mandarin, these red envelopes filled with money are usually gifted from a grandparent or parent to children, but truthfully anyone that’s unmarried qualifies for a red envelope. Not to sound like a money-hungry goblin, but these bad boys were one of the greatest parts of celebrating Lunar New Year as a kid. Seriously. Ask anyone you know that celebrates. Besides getting a little extra pocket money, the custom of handing out red envelopes stems from the tradition of using coins as a gift to ward off evil spirits.

    The Lion Dance and Dragon Dance: The highlight of Lunar New Year parades are the Lion Dance and Dragon Dance. In both dances, visible puppeteers operate these large lion or dragon costumes and imitate the creatures’ movements. In Chinese culture, the lion symbolizes stability and strength, while the dragon represents power and boldness. The dances are often performed on festive occasions as a way to chase off evil spirits and welcome prosperous times.

    Firecrackers: There’s nothing quite like welcoming a new year with a symphony of loud noises and colors. The Lunar New Year custom of setting off firecrackers and fireworks doesn’t stray too far from the Western tradition we all know and love — if anything, I think the story behind it makes it better. Not only is the sky lit up with a myriad of colors, but the loud sounds are believed to scare away evil spirits — a common theme, as you may have noticed, of many Lunar New Year customs.

  3. 3. Superstitions

    hair cut long hair

    Superstitions like not cutting your hair or sweeping the house seem pretty outrageous to those who don’t celebrate, yet are so second nature to those who do that we don’t even question them or really know the reasoning behind them. As you may have already noticed, most Lunar New Year traditions are rooted in age-old beliefs aimed toward bringing in good luck and prosperity. Here are a few common ones:

    Avoid wearing black & white: The colors black and white are typically associated with mourning, which is definitely not the energy you want to be carrying around while trying to usher in a happy and healthy new year. Avoid wearing black and white at all costs and instead opt for bright, lucky colors like red or orange.

    No throwing away garbage or sweeping: On the first few days of the new year, house chores are generally avoided since it’s seen as foreshadowing the hard work that lies in the year ahead. It’s thought that sweeping the floor will sweep away your good luck and throwing away the trash will throw out your good fortune. The idea is to clean your house top to bottom before new year’s eve, so that you rid your home of any bad luck that may have accumulated over the past year — leaving it open for a fresh new wave of good luck.

    Don’t cut your hair: Similar to the custom of not cleaning at the start of the new year, the washing and cutting of hair is generally avoided as well. Some say that since the Mandarin pronunciation for hair (fa) is quite similar to the phrase “getting rich” (facai), cutting your hair is like snipping away your good fortune. Long hair is also a historically traditional symbol of longevity, so cutting your hair during the start of the new year means your lifespan won’t be looking too hot.

Even with all the information I’ve compiled here, please know that I’ve barely managed to dent the surface of all the rich culture and traditions that follow a holiday like Lunar New Year. I can’t even begin to speak for other countries like Vietnam or South Korea that celebrate with different customs than I do. But no matter if you celebrate Lunar New Year or not, I hope I could give you a small taste of what it’s like to celebrate one of the biggest holidays in the world.