How the Lunar New Year will be different this year — and how to celebrate at home

Feb 9, 2021

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On Friday, Feb. 12, more than 2 billion people will celebrate the Lunar New Year — the largest annual holiday of the year for many Asian cultures.

Also known as the Spring Festival, the Chinese New Year, Seollal in Korean or Tết in Vietnamese, this year’s festival will usher us from the Year of the Rat into the Year of the Ox.

Photo by Feng Li/Getty Images

As with everything else in the world, however, the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted global celebrations of every kind. Asia was actually the first region to suffer the impact from the initial outbreak, as Lunar New Year celebrations and travel were canceled as early as January 2020 to limit the spread of the disease.

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So what exactly is the Lunar New Year, and how can you join in the festivities wherever you are?

The origins of the Lunar New Year

The lunar new year begins with the first new moon of the lunar calendar and ends 15 days later on the first full moon of the lunar calendar.

This all-important holiday sets millions of people across the globe in motion each year as they travel home to usher in the new year with their loved ones.

Photo by Toa55/Shutterstock

Chinese folklore and legends tell of a terrifying beast called Nian (年) — a homonym for “year” in Chinese — that used to emerge from the ocean to devour crops, livestock and even people. After years of terror, a smart villager finally realized that the beast feared loud sounds as well as the color red.

So whenever the beast came in future years, the village would plaster their homes with red banners and lanterns, beat loud gongs and set off firecrackers to frighten it away. Eventually, their efforts paid off and Nian never returned.

The festival also has roots in agriculture, when farmers would appeal to the gods to bless the harvest later in the year. In many cultures, the first guest to enter a household represents the family’s luck for the coming year.

While many aspects of celebration are similar, such as the feasting and festive atmosphere, Vietnamese Tết traditions also vary from its Chinese counterpart in some ways.

Lunar legends

The Lunar New Year Festival has been observed for more than 3,500 years throughout Asia. Of Chinese origin, the festival is now observed in multiple countries, including China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Mongolia, Burma, Vietnam, Korea and Tibet, as well as regions worldwide that have strong Chinese influence or diaspora such as Singapore, Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines and throughout the United States, Europe and Oceania.

The Chinese zodiac celebrates 12 animals. (Image by Shutterstock)

Several countries share the ideology behind the Chinese zodiac, which features twelve animals: The rat, the ox, the tiger, the rabbit, the dragon, the snake, the horse, the goat, the monkey, the chicken, the dog and the pig. Each animal represents one year, on a 12-year rotation, and people who are born in a specific year consider the return of their “animal year” to be particularly important in their lives.

However, others have their own takes on the zodiac. The Japanese zodiac features a very slightly different change, with a boar instead of a pig. The Vietnamese version features a buffalo instead of an ox, and a cat instead of the rabbit. The Thai zodiac swaps the dragon for a Naga, a mythical creature that looks like a giant snake. And the Burmese zodiac features eight animals that represent the directions of a compass.

Children receive red envelopes during the new year for luck, blessings and spending money. (Photo by Mcimage/Shutterstock)

Red envelopes are a unique characteristic of the New Year. In Chinese culture, they are considered lucky and are given between friends and family members with a very specific hierarchy in place. Older generations, such as parents and grandparents (or close friends in similar roles), gift lucky red envelopes filled with cash to children, along with their intangible wishes of luck and safety.

In Mandarin Chinese, the enclosed cash gift is called “ghost-suppressing money,” designed to keep another monster called Sui from attacking children. Of course in modern days, children also see the gift as spending money for the year.

However, after children grow up, the tables turn: Once young adults get married or become financially independent, they are expected to give red envelopes to their elders — parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles — as blessings for health and longevity as well as a gesture of filial piety.

You may also know about the Lunar New Year lion dances, which can be elevated to a competitive sport in many ways. The dances are designed to attract luck and good fortune for the new year and are performed by two performers; one bent over behind another to create a series of elaborate movements that propel the “lion” back and forth in impressive feats of skill.

Cross-cultural celebrations

Regardless of country, the vast majority of Lunar New Year celebrations revolve around the same elements: feasting, especially with special occasion foods specific for the holiday; festive decor with a heavy emphasis on red and gold; firecrackers and fireworks; and gathering together with family and friends. 

Every country has its own unique spin on new year traditions, but they also share some similarities. Food is an integral part of the celebration. It’s a cardinal sin to run short on refreshments for any guest in many Asian cultures, so each household stocks up on snacks and treats in addition to meal fare to avoid any possible shortage.

(Photo by firmansaputra888/Shutterstock)

The Lunar New Year also calls for many special foods, which often represent auspicious wishes for health, longevity and prosperity. Dumplings, duck, noodles, oranges and rice all feature heavily in Chinese celebrations. And since Chinese homonyms are popular for luck, whole steamed fish is especially popular because of a Chinese saying, nian nian you yu (年年有餘) — where the last word is a homonym for “abundance.”

In many cultures, the new year represents a fresh start, so homes need to be thoroughly cleaned before the first day to avoid “sweeping out” your luck with the new year. Many households also avoid taking out the trash for the first few days of the new year as well, so as not to carry out their blessings for the year.

Traditionally, the New Year was also a time when everyone received new clothes that would tide them through the year to come, so expect to see fancy new outfits around Lunar New Year time.

(Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

Of course, each country has its own traditions. Malaysians celebrate a tradition called yee sang, or a “prosperity toss,” where participants toss a plate of salad into the air for luck and blessings throughout the year. Ancestral worship and respect is a big part of the festival for many cultures, including in Vietnamese tradition. And in places like China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and even San Francisco and New York, it’s common to see red banners adorned with lucky sentiments lining the doorframes of shops, homes and other buildings.

What does this typically mean for travel?

In non-pandemic years, the Lunar New Year drives up the cost of flights between Asia and other continents because so many people travel to their countries of origin to visit with extended family — just like Western cultures emphasize the Christmas season.

Related: 10 places around the world to observe the Lunar New Year

Where can you find Lunar New Year events to attend?

Visitors to Asia will do well to seek out cultural hubs in their destination city, such as temples and markets, to see the biggest celebrations. Here, you’ll often find bright lights, colorful decor, paper lanterns, food hawkers on every corner and loud festive sounds of every variety, from people to music to gongs to firecrackers.

People in traditional costumes attend the Chinese Lunar New Year parade in Chinatown on February 5, 2017, in New York City. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

In the United States, cities with large Asian American populations typically host Lunar New Year celebrations. Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, Houston, New Orleans and Honolulu are all great destinations to consider if you’d like to experience the Lunar New Year for yourself.

You can also find diasporic celebrations in cities beyond the U.S., such as Sydney and Vancouver.

Home is where the heart is

While 2021 will not be the year most of us can travel to Asia for fireworks or fantastic food, the Lunar New Year is, first and foremost, a family celebration. So get together with your family — or your quaranteam — and wear your most festive clothing on Friday, Feb. 12, to usher in the Year of the Ox.

Related: Where can Americans travel right now?

Set up a game of mahjong, string up some twinkle lights in your back yard, wear red for good luck and pour drinks for everyone to get the celebrations started. Then when you get hungry, order in or make your own dumplings and noodles. Just be sure not to cut or break the noodles so that you don’t “cut your luck short.”

Featured photo by Feng Li/Getty Images

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