Friday, February 12, 2021, is a new year! Well, it is if you use the lunar or lunisolar calendar. Although many times you’ll hear this celebration called Chinese New Year, it is actually celebrated by many Asian countries which is why many call it Lunar New Year.
What is Lunar New Year? This date is marked by the moon’s cycle in the lunar calendar’s year which is why this is a shifting holiday and doesn’t fall on the same date each year. Typically Lunar New Year falls between January 21 and February 20 of the Gregorian calendar (this is the common January to December calendar you’re likely familiar with and use yourself).
Depending on the country and culture, celebrations of Lunar New Year are different. While we’d love to cover everything in one blog post, it’s not possible and we wouldn’t do it justice. We’re going to mostly talk about the way that the Chinese celebrate Lunar New Year since many Americans have a some familiarity with this particular cultural holiday, but we suggest reading about how others celebrate since it’s such a diverse topic! South Korea celebrates it with the name Seollal. Mongolian New Year is Tsgaan Sar. Tibet celebrates Losar. Vietnam celebrates Tết. The list goes on, so you can see why we’d have a hard time capturing everything in one post. Also, keep in mind that although we are focusing on the general way that China celebrates the holiday, it is a diverse country itself and not all areas may celebrate the same holiday in the exact same way.
In China, Lunar New Year is a 15-day celebration (and is also called Spring Festival because it generally marks the coldest days before spring weather begins). Typically, most people get 7 days off of work and school to visit family during this time. It was estimated that last year in January 2020 nearly 3 billion trips were made by those visiting family specifically for Lunar New Year!
The start of the new year is also the start of the next zodiac. The Chinese zodiac, or Sheng Xiao (生肖), is a repeating 12-year cycle of animal signs (the order of the zodiac animals goes: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, Pig.) The year you are born dictates which animal zodiac you fall under. It is believed to have an impact on your personality, career, relationships, and more. In 2021, we are moving into the year of the Ox. This is actually NOT good luck for those born in 2021, 2009, 1997, 1985, 1973, 1961, 1949, etc. (Keep in mind with the moving holiday it is hard to know exactly if you fall into a certain Chinese zodiac. You may need Google’s help. A January or February birthday in one of those years still might fall under the prior zodiac.) Typically, when the year of your zodiac comes up, it is thought of as a time to overcome obstacles and face potential tests. For more info about the Chinese zodiacs, check out this website.
The Lunar New Year also has numerous symbols as part of the festivities. The holiday is largely about attracting good luck and good fortune and most of the symbols revolve around that.
Red and gold are two colors you will see pop up repeatedly in association with Chinese culture and Lunar New Year. Gold is a color of harmony and is often associated with spiritual freedom. Red is thought to bring luck and symbolizes good fortune and joy. Because of red’s meaning, families will give their children red envelopes of money to share fortune with them. Sometimes bosses, coworkers, and friends share red envelopes as well.
Another common sight is 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 fú means to arrive or begin and sounds like the word for “upside-down.” By hanging fú upside down, you’re asking for good fortune to arrive.
Firecrackers and fireworks are a staple of the holiday, too! Fireworks are set off at midnight to scare away bad luck, then are used again in the morning to welcome good luck. It is believed that this is the date that the most fireworks in the world are set off in a single night.
Traditional dances and performances are incorporated into parades and celebrations. Two common ones are The Lion Dance and The Dragon Dance. The Lion Dance features two performers inside the costume, operating as the creature’s front and back legs. The Dragon Dance features visible puppeteers holding poles as they make the dragon move in a flowing motion. Depending on the region of China, other dances include The Fan Dance, The Phoenix Dance, or other performances associated with the local culture of each province.
All of these festivities end in the Lantern Festival (灯节 / dēng jié). This event is its own feast for the eyes with an abundance of lantern decorations as well as the lighting of flying sky lanterns. The Lantern Festival features some overlap with the general celebrations of Lunar New Year, such as dances and fireworks, but admiring the lanterns and enjoying the night are the main focus of this particular celebration. Loosely speaking, lanterns are considered a wide variety of illuminated displays and can be floating, flying, held, or hung, so you’ll often see a wide range of lit decorations referred to as Chinese lanterns.
As we said before, this barely grazes the surface for the Chinese celebration of Lunar New Year. As with any fun celebration, there’s a ton of food to enjoy, plus there’s lots of other activities families and friends do together during this time. There’s plenty to enjoy surrounding Lunar New Year and we barely scratched the surface!
- 21 Things You Didn’t Know About Chinese New Year (ChineseNewYear.net)
- Chinese New Year Firecrackers (ChinaHighlights.com)
- China’s Lantern Festival 2021: Traditions, Activities, Places To Go (ChinaHighlights.com)
- Lunar New Year’s Traditions and Superstitions, Explained (Oprah Magazine)
Learn the correct way to write fú for your own hanging ornament (remember to hang it upside-down!)
Follow 2 girls on their adventure of Lunar New Year in China:
See how some of the large display lanterns are made by a traditional craftsman (Chinese with English subtitles):