Lunar New Year is the biggest annual holiday in China, South Korea, and Vietnam and is celebrated in many other countries in East Asia and Southeast Asia. In common with most New Year’s traditions around the world, it’s a season to celebrate, prepare, and focus on luck and prosperity for the new year. Read on for the most famous of these Lunar New Year customs.
In China, in modern times, the New Year is also known as the “Spring Festival.” In South Korea, it’s called Seollal. And in Vietnam, the holiday is known as Tết. Other countries, such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, and the Philippines, typically refer to it as Lunar New Year. In the U.S., Canada, and Europe, it’s often known as “Chinese New Year.”
Some of the first celebrations and observances date back to over 3,800 years ago during the Shang Dynasty. Following the cycles of the moon, or lunar calendar, the Lunar New Year generally falls in late January or early February in the Gregorian calendar. This year, the Lunar New Year is on February 1st, 2022, and will usher in the Year of the Tiger.
Celebrating Lunar New Year Abroad
Asian immigrants have found new ways to celebrate when they’re far from their home country. Some first-generation Chinese Americans, like Michelle, a lifestyle blogger, feel that it can be difficult to celebrate Lunar New Year when living abroad since the festivities are not as elaborately celebrated outside China.
Michelle explains, “similar to Christmas in western countries, the Lunar New Year is the biggest holiday of the culture. Companies close for days, families travel home, and gifts (in the form of money stuffed in a red envelope) are passed out to children.”
Each tradition, she adds, is meant to symbolize and “bring upon good fortune, health, and prosperity for the new year to come.”
A major way that she maintains traditions from her home country is to recreate beloved holiday dishes. “Although it may not feel as festive as it is in Asia, we still try to celebrate by the most intuitive way we know and that is through food,” Michelle says.
10 Lunar New Year Traditions
1. Dances, parades, and street parties
A symbol of Lunar New Year somewhat familiar worldwide is that of a vibrant, lively parade with dragon dances and lion dances, acrobats, masked dancers, and other folk pageantry.
Many communities hold these public celebrations, which usually involve participants and viewers making lots of noise in the street with firecrackers, gongs, drums, and bells.
These noises are to ward off evil spirits, which is called “nian” in Mandarin. In Vietnam, parades feature the Mua Lan, a hybrid lion, dragon, and unicorn that’s a symbol of strength.
Larger expat communities across the globe have similar celebrations, especially in big cities. In the United States, San Francisco’s and New York City’s Chinatowns hold big festivals. The Vietnamese community in Orange County, California, hosts a big annual Tet Festival.
2. Honoring gods, ancestors, and elders
Many families visit temples during Lunar New Year. They go there to pray for good luck, place food offerings, and burn incense for the gods and ancestors. A Vietnamese ritual for Lunar New Year involves burning incense and inviting ancestors to join in with the celebrations.
It’s also common practice throughout New Year celebrations for younger generations to honor their elders and wish them a long life. This might mean special greetings, bowing, and deference while sharing food. This type of ritual is typically a part of gift-giving and receiving, too.
3. New clothes
Wearing new clothes during the Lunar New Year means a new start. People tend to choose vibrant colors such as red when buying clothes. Red typically symbolizes harmony, good luck, and happiness. Keep in mind that you should avoid wearing black or white during the New Year as people usually wear these colors at funerals.
In Korea, it’s traditional to wear the formal hanbok during the holiday, but in contemporary times many people prefer an informal approach to clothing.
In parts of China, it’s bad luck to buy new shoes during the new year. This is because, in Cantonese, the word for shoes sounds like sighing, which is too negative for such a happy time.
4. Posting spring couplets on the door
Spring couplets, or Chunlian in Chinese (春聯), are also known as Spring Festival couplets or Chinese New Year couplets.
During the New Year, people write black or golden characters on red paper. Spring couplets are composed of a pair of poetry lines or blessings vertically pasted on both sides of the front door and a four-character horizontal scroll affixed above the door frame.
Pasting couplets expresses people’s delight in the festival and wishes for a better life in the coming year.
5. Red envelopes and other gifts
Giving gifts to the friends and family you visit during Lunar New Year is another big tradition. Suitable gifts vary by region and from family to family, but it’s common for elders to present a gift of money to children.
Chinese children receive “hongbao”: red envelopes containing money. In Vietnam, adults give “Li Xi” or “lucky money” to children. The Korean tradition of Sebaetdon offers paper money in silk bags with traditional designs.
Other gifts are given for the Lunar New Year, too. Sweets, fruit, special delicacies, flowers, and tea leaves are popular. In Korea, ginseng, honey, and health products are traditional gifts for parents. In China, people like giving the elderly gift boxes or gift baskets to show their appreciation. Small peach trees are a popular new year’s gift in Hong Kong.
Gift-giving makes the lead-up to Lunar New Year a busy shopping time.
6. Spring cleaning
Another element of preparation for Lunar New Year that’s both practical and ritualistic is a serious spring-cleaning session. The ritual element relates to sweeping out evil spirits that might be hiding in nooks and crannies.
Families will move furniture to clean every corner and generally make the home spotless in preparation for visitors. This might include touching up paint, making repairs, and washing windows. Some regions designate a certain day of the New Year period as the traditional house-cleaning day.
7. Special foods for Lunar New Year
Lunar New Year celebrations always involve lots of special food. On New Year’s Eve, meals are often the largest feast of the year. Some call the New Year’s Eve dinner “reunion dinner” (團圓飯), where families gather and enjoy the time together.
Every region has traditional foods associated with the holiday. In China, these are typically chosen because their names sound similar to words meaning abundance, luck, or prosperity. For example, a traditional whole fish, called “yu,” shares its name with the word for abundance. In Shanghai, certain dumplings that resemble gold ingots are traditional. In Guangzhou, oysters are eaten because their name in the local dialect means “good business.”
Matt Reischer, a food critic for a Chinese neighborhood blog, shares that “[My wife and I] make sure to eat a whole fish (usually bass or croaker) which symbolizes ‘unity’ for the coming new year.”
Chao Wang, owner of Hunan Slurp, shares, “[I] grew up in Hunan, [so] I inhabited the tradition of having a few specific dishes on the dinner table on the day: Handmade Fishcake, Sweet Chicken Soup, and Rice cake with soybean powder and brown sugar.”
Rice cake is also another food people love to eat during Lunar New Year. Cake, also called “gao” in Chinese, is the homonym with ‘height’ in Mandarin. So, according to Chinese traditions, eating gao is not only a great way to celebrate the Chinese New Year, but it also symbolizes that the entire family will reach a new height in the year ahead.
The New Year rice cake can come in different forms or flavors. The most traditional is made from rice flour, so it’s recommended to pan fry or steam until well done for the most optimal flavor.
Ning (Amelie) Kang, chef-owner of MáLà Project, says, “At home, we would always eat dumplings on New Year’s Day and after dinner, we would gather around the TV and snack on sunflower seeds while chatting. After I moved to the U.S., I still try to keep these customs alive. My friends gather in my apartment and make dumplings together.”
Traditional Vietnamese dishes for Lunar New Year include peanut brittle, coconut candy, and banh chung, a steamed rice cake with pork stuffing, wrapped in banana leaves.
In Korea, teokguk, a soup with clear broth and white rice cakes, symbolizes a clean mind and body for the new year.
8. Taking care of finances
Preparing for one year ending and a new one beginning, many take the chance to tie up loose financial ends, both business and personal. Businesses and individuals will pay off debts, collect money owed, balance the books, and generally prepare a clean slate for the new year.
This is a practical Lunar New Year tradition, too, as most businesses close for at least a few days over the holiday. Further, it’s considered vulgar to try to collect a debt during the New Year itself.
9. Visiting family and friends
Family reunions, often involving long-distance travel, are a major part of Lunar New Year customs in every country that celebrates. This turns the holiday into the busiest time of year for travel. The travel rush for the Spring Festival in China is even described by CNN as the world’s biggest season of human migration.
As well as general homecomings, Lunar New Year traditions involve visiting extended family and friends, often in a prescribed order as the days of the holiday progress. For instance, you might spend the first day with the nuclear family, then visit the closest paternal relatives, followed by maternal relatives, and later, visit friends.
Superstitions about good luck come into play in some communities. A person who has experienced a lucky, prosperous year might be invited to enter a house first to symbolically bring their good luck with them.
10. Celebrating the Lantern Festival
The Lantern Festival is on the 15th day of the Lunar New Year. During the Lantern Festival, children go out at night and carry paper lanterns and solve riddles on the lanterns. Historically, the brightest lanterns were symbolic of good luck and hope.
On this day, families eat tangyuan “湯圓” (Southern China, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia) or yuanxiao “元宵” (Northern China) together. It’s a sticky rice ball typically filled with sweet red bean paste, sesame paste, or peanut butter paste.
In ancient times, young people went out on this day in hopes of finding love. Matchmakers would try to pair couples. In modern times, the festival no longer has such implications.
What about the Chinese Zodiac?
Chinese tradition assigns an animal to each new year, in a 12-year cycle. Each animal represents certain characteristics both for the year, and for the people born during that year. The Chinese zodiac years are known as the:
- Year of the rat
- Year of the ox
- Year of the tiger
- Year of the rabbit
- Year of the dragon
- Year of the snake
- Year of the horse
- Year of the goat
- Year of the monkey
- Year of the rooster
- Year of the dog
- Year of the pig