Lunar New Year History and Traditions, Explained

chinese lunar new year
Lunar New Year History and Traditions, ExplainedPexels

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The Year of the Rabbit is ~officially~ upon us. Lunar New Year is a time for family, food, and togetherness, and this year, the celebrations kicked off on January 22, 2023. "It's the biggest holiday in many Asian countries, and I love the traditions that come with the 15-day celebration," says Kristie Hang, a TV host, journalist, and expert in Chinese food & culture. "It’s a great time to do some self reflecting and start the new year off right."

Culturally, Lunar New Year is a celebration observed throughout the world, mainly in Eastern Asia, and it "culminates in festivals, family celebration, and religious ceremonies to celebrate the previous year and ring in the new one," says Aaron Luo, co-founder of Caraa and Mercado Famous, based in New York, NY. Technically speaking, Lunar New Year is based on the moon cycles, so the date varies slightly every year, and lasts for multiple days. Each year within the Lunar calendar is also represented by one of 12 Zodiac animals that corresponds to the five elements.

For a look at the history of Lunar New Year and its various traditions—from delectable fare to unique rituals—read on for all the deets surrounding a fresh calendar year.

The Origin of Lunar New Year:

A new moon indicates a fresh, clean slate—both literally and figuratively. According to Wanda Wen, founder of Los Angeles' Soolip brand, a thorough house-cleaning is always the first step in readying one’s home and one’s self for a new cycle.

Lunar New Year is also commonly referred to as Spring Festival, and begins with the first new moon of the lunar calendar, and closes on the full moon. Wen notes that the public holiday in China is seven days, but formal celebrations last 16 days, but schools and business may be closed for more than a month. "This particular new year being The Year of the (Black Water) Rabbit is especially auspicious, since in folklore, it is said that a rabbit is in charge of sweeping the moon and keeping it clean. All of this points to the new year as being a prime opportunity for freeing one’s self of past psychic baggage and creating fresh new beginnings," she says.

According to Luo, Lunar New Year dates back thousands of years, with roots in China as an agricultural festival to celebrate harvest, worship the gods, and ask for good luck in the future. "Beginning in the 1940s, the government forbade celebration of the traditional Chinese New Year, but by the time I was a child in China, it was reinstated as a holiday and celebration," he says, adding that in the ‘90s, China instituted a weeklong vacation during the holiday (now officially called Chunyun, or "Spring Festival") giving people the opportunity to travel home and to celebrate the new year.

The entire history of Lunar New Year is a bit more complex. Modern China has used the Gregorian calendar, like the West, since 1912. However, holidays fall under the much older lunisolar calendar. Some records suggest that this lunar observance was formalized in China forty centuries ago. "Differing dynasties throughout China’s history set the dates and formalized various aspects of the celebration, and let’s remember that Asia is a very, very big place," Wen says. Celebration traditions are inflected by the living culture, so India, Vietnam, Malaysian and other countries have added their own individual signatures to this holiday season over time.

How do you celebrate Lunar New Year?

Traditionally, celebrants return to their hometowns for 15 days to spend time with family, receive red envelopes full of money, and feast together. The festivities typically unfold starting on New Year’s Eve, which starts on January 21 in 2023. This is when many families come together for a reunion dinner to eat lucky foods in the hope of bringing prosperity and good fortune into the New Year. "In many instances, what the dish’s name sounds like, how it’s prepared, or the way it’s served all adds another layer of auspiciousness to the dish," says Hang.

All 15 days constitute quite the party with certain days imbued with unique forms of recognition. "Through the centuries, specific days of observance were established, beginning with the big family reunion dinner on the 30th day of the 12th month. On the first day of the first month, visiting the graves of ancestors became a tradition. The second day of the first month is In-Law’s Day," says Wen, noting that the sixth day is called "Day of the Horse," the day when many return to work. "Stones, grain, sheep, sons-in-law, lanterns, and the enigmatic Rat each have a day dedicated to them during the Lunar New Year celebration," she adds.

What food is served during Lunar New Year?

Like many types of new year’s celebrations across cultures, food is front and center.

Hang shares that her family likes to order a lo hei for Lunar New Year, which is a Cantonese tradition that has become popularized in Singapore and Malaysia. "The name literally translates to 'tossing up good fortune,'" she shares, adding that this refers to the ritual where families gather around a plate during the Lunar New Year, and then mix and toss the ingredients while wishing each other lucky phrases before eating it. "The tradition dictates that the higher the toss, the luckier the year ahead will be."

Hang and her loved ones also snack from something called "Togetherness Trays." Both Chinese and Vietnamese cultures consider togetherness trays essential to the Lunar New Year festivities. "They believe that since many of the items in the trays are sweet, eating sweet foods will bring them good luck and success in the New Year." says Hang. The Tray of Togetherness is a red Chinese candy box with usually six or eight compartments (since six symbolizes luck and eight symbolizes wealth) filled with different candied fruits, vegetables, snacks, and candies that all have symbolically auspicious meanings.

You may recognize the glutinous rice cakes that are often sold during Lunar New Year. Glutinous rice cakes, or niángāo, are one of the most symbolic dishes of the holiday, says Hang, sharing that this dish is also translated as a "New Year cake." The sweet variety is the more popular version, and is typically made with sugar, sticky rice, chestnuts, Chinese dates, and lotus leaves.

What are some popular Lunar New Year traditions?

Beyond delicious fare, you may also associate the red envelope exchange with Lunar New Year. The older generation gives out red envelopes to the younger generation as a gift and symbol of auspiciousness. Often stuffed with money, the envelopes are traditionally given to children and are called 'Suppressing Sui Money' in many Asian dialects.

In addition to these envelopes, peaches are another symbol that pervades Lunar New Year soirées. "Images of peaches, and traditional decorations made of peachwood paper. Peaches are a powerful symbol of the sweet life, including harmonious marriage and home, in many Asian cultures," says Wen. "In the China of a thousand years ago, it was believed that the wood of peach trees could fend off ghosts, so banners made of peach-tree bark were placed around doorways for New Year’s luck." (If you want to deck your halls with some decorations of your own check out our Lunar New Year decorations guide here.)

Luo also reveals a few more popular traditions during Lunar New Year, such as house cleaning "to expel any bad luck and make way for new, good luck" and gathering with loved ones to watch Lunar New Year television programs and specials, much like Americans may gather to watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

How do you wish someone a happy Lunar New Year?

According to Chinese mythology, the Chinese character for 'year', called Nian, is also the character for 'monster.' For a New Year’s greeting, you can say "Guo Nian," which literally translates to "overcome monster Nian."

File this under spooky: "Nian sleeps peacefully at the bottom of the sea all year, then rises from the depths on New Year’s Eve to munch on crops, livestock, and even people," says Wen. "I marvel at this story as a metaphor for human behavior. Something unresolved in each of us sleeps in the deep."

As Wen reveals, people soon realized that this monster is a coward. "Nian is afraid of loud noises, bright lights, and the color red—three things that all Chinese people love most," says Wen. "Centuries ago, people would burn bamboo so that it would crack and explode. Then Chinese court magicians invented firecrackers, not as actual weapons, but to scare off monsters. I love this about the Chinese history of invention."

That's why Lunar New Year’s is always celebrated by wearing red, sparking firecrackers, and the lighting of red lanterns at the end of the festival. Guo Nian, indeed.

What does the Year of the Rabbit represent?

Finally, let’s hop to (pun intended) what the Year of the Rabbit means. The fourth in the 12-year cycle of the Chinese zodiac signs, the Year of the Rabbit symbolizes longevity, peace, and prosperity in Chinese culture.

The rabbit is associated with the “Earthly Branch” in the Chinese zodiac and in terms of yin and yang, the Rabbit is Yin. "The Rabbit is a sign of luck and good fortune," Luo says. "Those born in the Year of the Rabbit are revered as one of the luckiest signs of the Chinese Zodiac, so hopefully it will be a lucky year for us all!"

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