What Is the Lunar New Year and How Is It Celebrated?
Mark your (Gregorian) calendar for Jan. 22, 2023, and get ready to welcome the Year of the Rabbit!
Jan. 22, 2023 will usher in the Lunar New Year, and people will celebrate around the world. Though this holiday is often called Chinese New Year in the United States, festivities marking the new year according to China’s lunar calendar (technically, a lunisolar calendar) are not limited to China. Countries like Japan, South Korea and Vietnam use the same calendar to mark important holidays, including the new year.
In America, Lunar New Year celebrations are most visible in Chinatowns across the country. You’ll often see parades, fireworks, lion-dancing and an array of Chinese New Year food. There’s also an emphasis on the year’s Chinese zodiac sign, which is paired with one of the five Chinese zodiac elements, and 2023 is the Year of the Water Rabbit. Since there are 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac, each animal repeats every 12 years, and people born in 1939, 1951, 1963 and so on are Rabbits. If you were born in the Year of the Rabbit, though, you’ll want to take some extra precautions for 2023. When it’s your zodiac year, there’s a superstition that misfortune can visit. Wearing jade and the color red can attract good luck instead of bad.
Regardless of your zodiac year, Lunar New Year is a time to celebrate, as well as an opportunity to start fresh. Read on to learn more about Lunar New Year and how to celebrate it with traditions that have been passed down over thousands of years.
What is Lunar New Year?
“Lunar New Year celebrates the first days of spring on the lunar calendar,” says Jenny Leung, executive director of the Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco. “It has become the symbol of bidding farewell to the old year and starting fresh the new year, and [it’s a time] of family reunion.”
The calendar we follow in the United States was started in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII and first adopted by Catholic countries. Gradually, the majority of countries also got on Gregorian time, but some countries still follow other calendars, particularly for holidays. That’s the case with the Lunar New Year.
Instead of tracking the Earth’s orbit around the sun, which is slightly over 365 days, the lunar calendar tracks the cycles of the moon. One lunar year is 12 full cycles of the moon, approximately 354 days. The Hijri calendar, also known as the Islamic calendar, abides by this lunation, but the Chinese lunar calendar (as well as Hindu, Jewish and other calendars) follows a lunisolar cycle, which adjusts with an extra month when it drifts too far from the solar calendar. That’s why Lunar New Year falls on a different day of our Gregorian calendar each year, but within the same approximate time frame. Whatever day it falls on, it’s a day to be with loved ones, marking new beginnings and enjoying delicious meals together.
How is it celebrated?
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Generally, Lunar New Year celebrations can span around 15 days (from new moon to full moon), but the duration and ways of celebrating vary between cultures, religions, and geographical regions. “Lunar New Year is celebrated around the world,” Leung explains. “Particularly in Asia, [in countries] such as China, Vietnam, and Korea.”
In Vietnam, it’s called Tet Nguyen Dan, or Tet for short. Families eat a sticky rice dish together and display tall bamboo trees outside their homes. In South Korea, it’s called Seollal, and traditionally a meal is prepared to honor ancestors first, and then younger family members pay respects to the older generation by bowing, after which the elders give them words of wisdom and pocket money.
“Many places in the U.S. with Asian populations also celebrate the holiday,” says Leung. “In San Francisco’s Chinatown, we have one of the largest celebrations outside of Asia.” It’s also the oldest celebration of Lunar New Year in America, dating back to the 1860s. Chinese immigrants in California after the Gold Rush had become targets of discrimination and violence. Wanting to share their culture as a way to build connection, they chose the American format of a parade to showcase Chinese traditions. In San Francisco today, says Leung, people of Asian descent “welcome the New Year and invite visitors from all over the world to participate with the Chinese New Year Parade, Flower Fair, public art, exhibitions, tours and various activities.”
What’s the difference between Lunar New Year, Chinese New Year, and Spring Festival?
Lunar New Year, Chinese New Year, Spring Festival—you may hear all three of these terms and wonder which is the correct one to use. When referring specifically to a new year event where Chinese traditions and culture are celebrated, you can refer to it as Chinese New Year. Lunar New Year is more inclusive and encompasses all celebrations that mark the new year according to the lunisolar calendar. The term Spring Festival is mostly used in mainland China and marks a weeklong vacation that prompts massive travel across the country as people head home to spend time with family. Tourists will want to avoid traveling during this time, since traffic and ticket prices soar.
What are some popular Lunar New Year traditions?
The Lunar New Year is a time to invite prosperity and welcome good luck. Leung shares that “many cultures hold ancestor worship ceremonies on the first day of Lunar New Year, with different rituals such as visiting and sweeping ancestors’ graves and preparing food for them. Folk arts and performances like dragon and lion dances, paper cuts, Chinese opera and martial arts are commonly seen in the Temple Fair during Chinese Lunar New Year.”
Many cultures also celebrate with gifts of money handed out in red envelopes. Red is considered a lucky color that can protect against misfortune, and it appears in abundance during Lunar New Year festivals. Foods that symbolize good fortune are also prepared and eaten in the company of family and friends, filling the air with the fragrance of dumplings, noodles and other delectable dishes.
If you’re in the vicinity of a Lunar New Year festival, you’ll likely be able to hear it, too. To ward off bad luck and scare away evil spirits, loud activities are popular, like fireworks, firecrackers and percussion instrument performances. If your January 1st New Year resolutions could use a little extra good luck, consider ringing in the Lunar New Year on Jan. 22 and perhaps even also bring a few items into your home that feng shui experts say can boost your health and happiness.
- Jenny Leung, executive director of the Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco
- New York Times: “What Lunar New Year’s Reveals About the World’s Calendars”
- The New Yorker: “The Forgotten History of Purging the Chinese from America”