Lunar New Year. Photo: KnowInsiders
Lunar New Year. Photo: KnowInsiders

When people talk about the "holiday season" in the U.S., they typically refer to that period between Thanksgiving dinner and New Year's Day. But shortly after that, another massive holiday brings friends and family together in several Asian countries, with concurrent parties that carry on the traditions stateside.

Lunar New Year is a time for family members from far and wide to gather over a meal, exchange lucky red envelopes, play games, and welcome in the new year. Its celebration is a touchstone that connects Asian Americans with their heritage. For many Asian American children, Lunar New Year is a way to understand the traditions of their parents and ancestors that precede them.

What is the Lunar New Year?

The Lunar New Year—which is also called Spring Festival—marks the first full moon of the lunar calendar and generally takes place between January 21 and February 20. The dates of the New Year change every year on the Gregorian calendar, the solar dating system used in most of the world. However, the Lunar New Year is based on a lunisolar calendar that matches the cycles of the moon.

Though it takes 365 days for the Earth to orbit the sun, the moon’s 12 full cycles take about 354 days to complete. Many ancient calendars such as the Chinese, Hindu and Jewish ones are based on these moon cycles. However, lunar calendars don’t always correspond with the seasons so to remedy that an extra month is sometimes added to a lunar calendar to align it with a solar calendar. This means that Lunar New Year festivities fall on a different day each year.

In a lunisolar calendar, there are certain things that are also pegged to the movement of the sun, says Jan Stuart, a curator at the Freer and Sackler Galleries, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art. “There are mechanisms keeping these calendars in sync, but it’s the lunar calendar that’s the primary one. The Chinese calendar has been micro calibrated to be best for agricultural dates.”

Traditional China was largely an agrarian society. The Lunar New Year took place after farmers harvested crops and before they had to plant new ones, so the holiday represents a time of rest. In the People’s Republic of China, the public holiday is one week long, and this year it will take place between February 11 and 17.

“It’s a 15-day holiday. You start by doing certain ritual acts, such as a symbolic sweeping cleaning of the home in order to drive out any misfortune, bad luck or any bad influences,” says Stuart.

She adds that the Lunar New Year is based on, “this idea of starting fresh and anew.”

History of Chinese New Year

Chinese New Year is the Chinese festival that celebrates the beginning of a new year on the traditional Chinese calendar. The festival is usually referred to as the Spring Festival in mainland China and is one of several Lunar New Years in Asia. The first day of Chinese New Year begins on the new moon that appears between January 21 and February 20. It’s a major holiday in Greater China and has strongly influenced lunar new year celebrations of China’s neighboring cultures, including the Korean New Year, the Tết of Vietnam, and the Losar of Tibet. It is also celebrated worldwide in regions and countries with significant Chinese populations, like Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, North America, and Europe.

In 1928, the Kuomintang party decreed that Chinese New Year will fall on the first of January, following the Gregorian Calendar, but this was abandoned due to overwhelming opposition from the populace. In 1967 during the Cultural Revolution, official Chinese New Year celebrations were banned in China. The State Council of the People’s Republic of China announced that the public should change customs, have a revolutionized and fighting Spring Festival, and since people needed to work on Chinese New Year Eve, they did not have holidays during Spring Festival day. The public celebrations were reinstated by the time of the Chinese economic reform.

The festival was traditionally a time to honor deities as well as ancestors. Within China, regional customs and traditions concerning the celebration of the New Year vary widely, and the evening preceding Chinese New Year’s Day is frequently regarded as an occasion for Chinese families to gather for the annual reunion dinner. It is also traditional for every family to thoroughly clean their house, in order to sweep away any ill fortune and to make way for incoming good luck.

When is the Lunar New Year in 2022?

Photo: Canva
Photo: Canva

Unlike the January 1st celebration most of us are used to, the date of the Lunar New Year changes every year.

Americans and many other cultures around the world use the Gregorian calendar to keep track of the days of the year. However, this calendar doesn’t keep track of the moon and sun’s different phases, like the lunisolar calendar does. This lunisolar calendar is used by many ancient cultures and religions and it’s the calendar used to determine the Lunar New Year—that’s why the holiday falls on different dates each year.

Typically, it is celebrated between January 20 and February 21 of the Gregorian calendar. In 2021, it was on February 23. In 2022, Lunar New Year is Tuesday, February 1, 2022.

Lunar New Year Traditions

Upside-down fu characters: On Chinese New Year, you'll commonly see a calligraphy character on a square of red paper, hung in a diamond shape. The character, 福 [fú], which means good luck, is hung upside down for Lunar New Year. "The word 'to arrive,' or to begin, is a homophone for the word for upside down," Maasbach explains. Through this bit of pictorial wordplay, the symbol effectively means that good luck is arriving, or pouring down on you.

Red pockets full of money: Known as lì xì in Vietnamese or hóngbāo in Mandarin, in China they're traditionally gifted from an elder or parent to children, or really anyone who's unmarried. "It's really fun, because even if your brother is 40 and he's unmarried he still gets red envelopes," Maasbach says. The custom arose out of a tradition of using coins as a gift to ward off evil spirits.

It's an occasion for kids to have a little fun when asking for an envelope, too. When asking, "you have to say things like 'xin nian kuai le', or 'Happy New Year,' or 'gong xǐ fā cái', which means 'make money in the new year'. But it kind of has a rhyme," Maasbach says. "You'll say, 'gong xǐ fā cái, hóngbāo ná lái!'" This translates to, 'Make a lot of money in the new year—now give me my red envelope!"

Firecrackers: Firecrackers and fireworks are often set off throughout Lunar New Year, both to ward off an ancient monster called Nian, and because it's become a raucous way to celebrate. It's common to see families shooting off the equally festive, and non-fiery, confetti cannons on the streets of U.S. Chinatowns on New Year's Day.

The Lion Dance and Dragon Dance: Traditional dances and gymnastic performances are an exciting part of a Lunar New Year parade. A Lion Dance typically features two performers inside the costume, operating as the creature's front and back legs. "It's supposed to send away any evil spirits," Maasbach says. "It's an opportunity to feed the lion with red envelopes."

How do people celebrate the Lunar New Year?

Photo: The Rakyat Post
Photo: The Rakyat Post

While most holidays are only typically celebrated for one day, not this one! The Lunar New Year can be celebrated for multiple days. In fact, depending on what culture is celebrating it, the holiday can be celebrated for up to 15 days. During that time, extravagant events like firework displays, parades and lion and dragon dances can occur.

And while celebratory customs vary between Asian cultures, one of the most popular traditions of the Lunar New Year is to give children money. This tradition is called “lì xì” in Vietnamese or “hóng bāo” in Mandarin and involves parents, grandparents, aunt, uncles and sometimes family friends giving small, red envelopes with cash inside to children. The amount of money inside can range from $1 to hundreds or dollars and reflect numbers of good fortune.

Besides giving the tradition of money, the Lunar New Year can be celebrated in other ways, too. One of those ways is by decorating with the color red because it is associated with happiness and good fortune and has a history or warding off evil spirits.

People also celebrate the holiday by having a family dinner that includes traditional dishes, like fish, longevity noodles, tangyuan, spring rolls and dumplings. Foods like oranges and tangerines are also traditionally gifted during this holiday because they represent luck and wealth and people also do things like sweeping their homes to drive out any bad luck that’s there.

The end of the holiday is usually marked by a beautiful lantern festival, which symbolizes love and hope.

Remember your ancestors

Amid all the celebrations, it's easy to forget that Chinese New Year is really a holiday for the whole family — children and elders alike. Take a moment to appreciate those you love most.

Eat and be merry

First, consider all the dim sum delights that await for Chinese New Year. Then, remember to enjoy the fireworks, parades, and general merriment. Chinese New Year focuses on creating good luck for the year to come. Take time to enjoy yourself and others around you.

Share the traditional red envelopes

The red symbolizes good luck. The monetary gifts are meant to bring the recipient good fortune. Just make sure to gift cash in even numbers and do not have the number four in the amount.

What Do People Do in the US during Lunar New Year?

Photo: Spokane County Library District
Photo: Spokane County Library District

Many individuals and communities, particularly Chinese communities, in the United States take part in the Chinese New Year celebrations, which can last for days. Chinese New Year celebrations in the United States have, over the years, included activities and events such as:

* Chinese New Year parades featuring colorful costumes, floats, firecrackers and other attractions.

* Various dances, including lion and dragon dances.

* Chinatown fun runs or walks.

* Balls and pageants.

* Street fairs.

* Firework displays.

Some organizations may hold special contests or make announcements to coincide with Chinese New Year. For example, some newspapers or magazines may announce the top 10 Chinese restaurants in a city or town on Chinese New Year. It is customary for many Chinese-American families to spend time together and exchange gifts, including money wrapped in red and gold packages that are usually given to children.

What does the Lunar New Year symbolize?

Photo: TechCrunch
Photo: TechCrunch

Chinese New Year has various symbols and traditions. For example, flowers are an important part of New Year decorations. Writings that refer to good luck are often seen in homes and business environments. They are usually written by brush on a diamond-shaped piece of red paper. Tangerines and oranges are also displayed in many homes and stores as a sign of luck and wealth.

Envelopes with money (Hong Bao, Ang Pao, or Lai See) often come in the color red, which symbolizes happiness, good luck, success and good fortune. These envelopes are mainly given as presents to children. Each Chinese New Year is associated with an animal name for one of 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac.

What is the Chinese New Year 2022 Animal? — Tiger

The Chinese zodiac gives each year an animal sign.

2022 is a Year of the Tiger according to the Chinese zodiac, starting from February 1st, 2022, and lasting until January 21st, 2023.

People born in a year of the Tiger are predicted to be brave, competitive, unpredictable, and confident. They will experience their zodiac birth sign year (benmingnian) in 2022, which is considered bad luck.

Recent/upcoming years of the Tiger are 1938, 1950, 1962, 1974, 1986, 1998, 2010, and 2022.

You can use our free Chinese zodiac sign calculator tool to find your zodiac animal sign and check your horoscope in 2022 on our page Chinese zodiac.

Taboos and superstitions attract good luck on Lunar New Year.

Again, attracting—and carrying over—good fortune into the next year is a major theme of the holiday, and so is protecting against bad fortune. With that comes a lot of superstitious practices, Maasbach says.

"There are lots of little things you are supposed to do, and not do," she explains. "You're not supposed to cry, and you're not supposed to argue—only talk about good, happy things." This will set the tone for the future days.

"Pay back your debts before the new year starts," Massback continues, or it's bad luck.

Don't cut your hair on the Lunar New Year—in fact, stay away from scissors altogether. "My mother would be irate if I cut anything with scissors on Lunar New Year," says Maasbach. In a time of family togetherness and celebrating fortune, it's taboo because it's believed that you'll be severing those connections.

Avoid wearing black or white, as they're associated with mourning. To attract luck, "you have to wear red," Maasbach says, adding that her late grandmother wore red almost everyday, because "she wanted everything to be happy."

Don't do laundry on the first or second day of the new year, according to travel site China Highlights, "because these two days are celebrated as the birthday of Shuishen (水神, the Water God)." Avoid washing your hair too, lest you wash your good fortune away.

Don't sweep after Lunar New Year's Eve, the site adds, or you'll be sweeping away accrued wealth and luck.

Several traditional Lunar New Year foods also carry extra meaning in China, because the way they're pronounced is a homophone for another luck-related word. For example, "the pronunciation for 'fish' in Mandarin and many other dialects is 'yú', which is the same pronunciation as 'leftover'," Kho says. "The idea is that every year, you want an abundance of food or wealth, so that you have it left over for the next year."

Lunar New Year isn't exactly the same as Chinese New Year.

The Lunar New Year isn't only observed in China, it's celebrated across several countries and other territories in Asia, including South Korea and Singapore. In Vietnam, Lunar New Year is known as Tết, and in Tibet it's Losar. In the U.S., though, it's most commonly associated with what's often called Chinese New Year, the American version of China's 15-day-long festivities.

"It's been popularized because the largest segment of the Asian-American population in the United States is Chinese," Maasbach explains. "It's kind of like that old Friends joke, 'In China, they just call it 'food'; in Chinese, it's just the new year." But in America, she says, where the holiday is mainly experienced in the Chinatowns of various cities, "we just made it 'Chinese New Year.'" In Maasbach's experience, while Lunar New Year is the more inclusive and accurate term as it applies to the holiday worldwide, celebrating is "not as popular with some of those immigrant groups in America."

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