Celebrating the Lunar New Year
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- Lunar New Year is an important holiday celebrated by many Asian communities.
- Lunar New Year celebrations are a 3,500-year-old tradition in China.
- There are many fun ways to respectfully celebrate the Lunar New Year.
Lunar New Year is a celebration that is important to many Asian and Asian American students. In many cultures, it is considered the most important holiday of the year. Most notably observed by Chinese, Vietnamese, Tibetan, and Korean communities, Lunar New Year is a celebration of family, friends, and cultural heritage. Lunar New Year takes place on January 22, 2023.
In this article, you can learn more about why people celebrate Lunar New Year, the history and traditions behind the celebration, and ways you can participate in this holiday respectfully — even if you're not Asian.
What Is the Lunar New Year?
Lunar New Year, also known as Spring Festival, is celebrated in parts of the Asia-Pacific region and by diaspora communities around the world. Although it is often referred to as Chinese New Year due to its historical origin, Lunar New Year is celebrated by many Asian communities.
In Vietnam, the celebration is known as Tết Nguyên Đán. In Korea, it is observed as Seollal. And in Mongolia, it is celebrated as Tsagaan Sar. Before the adoption of the Gregorian calendar during the Meiji Empire, Lunar New Year was also celebrated in Japan.
While each culture has its own specific traditions during Lunar New Year, most celebrations focus on family, wishing for prosperity, and looking forward to the blessings of the upcoming year. The celebration begins with the first new moon of the Chinese lunar calendar, which typically falls between January 21 and February 20. In China, the celebration lasts 15 days.
The origins of the festival can be traced back to the myth of Nian (年, the Chinese word for "year"), a monster who devoured livestock and crops. To protect their homes, people would leave food in their doorways. An old man discovered that Nian was scared of loud noises and the color red, so villagers began leaving out red scrolls and making cracking sounds with bamboo to scare Nian away. As the years passed, the bamboo was replaced with firecrackers, but the celebration of food and red decorations remained.
Why the Lunar New Year Matters
Lunar New Year is an important holiday for Asian students because it ties them to an essential part of their heritage. The celebrations are akin to America's iconic New Year's Eve parties — they are elaborate festivities replete with dancing, fireworks, and jubilation.
The 15-day celebration also serves to reconnect family and friends. Many people who observe the holiday return home to gather with family for a special dinner on Lunar New Year's Eve. For many, the rituals and customs also act as a yearly reminder of the important cultural values that should be brought into the next year.
Dr. Weirong Yan-Schaefer a Chinese, Japanese, and Asian Cultural Studies instructor at Missouri State University, said the pandemic has made celebrating the Lunar New Year even more important.
"The Lunar New Year still matters today because it is the most important holiday in China and other Asian countries. It carries on meaningful Chinese traditions and customs, which bring people and communities together, especially families," Yan-Shaefer said. "It has even become more important since the pandemic to uplift people who have gone through very challenging times in the past few years."
For students who are not Asian, it is also important to be aware of this holiday because it is celebrated by more than 2 billion people. Taking the time to learn about other cultures can foster understanding, empathy, and curiosity. Embracing our uniqueness can enrich our perspectives and make us better citizens of the world. As we continue to move toward a global economy, it is imperative that we celebrate our diverse backgrounds.
Ways to Celebrate the Lunar New Year
There are many ways you can celebrate Lunar New Year — even if you don't belong to a culture that observes the holiday.
Clean Your Home
Because Lunar New Year is a time for new beginnings, one common tradition is to clean your home before Lunar New Year's Eve. The week leading up to the Lunar New Year is an excellent time to clear your space of unwanted objects and get a jump on your spring cleaning. In Chinese culture, cleaning your space rids your home of negative energy or bad luck that has accumulated over the past year.
Visit With Family
As part of the New Year tradition, families also often return home to see family and friends. After cleaning their houses from top to bottom, celebrants host dinner parties to catch up with loved ones. You can decorate your home with bright colors and prepare festive treats like long noodles, sweets, and the traditional dessert of oranges.
Attend a Lunar New Year Festival
If hosting is not your cup of tea, look to see if your area has a Chinese or Asian cultural center. Many of these places hold New Year festivals featuring lion dances and cultural performances, local vendors selling wares, and tasty Asian food.
Celebrate Asian Culture Through Film
Another way to celebrate this holiday is to watch films that bring Asian culture and traditions to life. In the past few years, several movies have made a big splash in the United States by highlighting Asian myths and legends. Many people have become more aware of Asian culture through films produced by large studios like Disney, including "Mulan" (2020) and "Raya and the Last Dragon" (2021). However, there are also lesser-known gems out there.
You might enjoy the animated Netflix film "Over The Moon" (2020), which retells the ancient legend of the Moon Goddess. Apple recently released the live action short film "Nian" (2021), which incorporates the origin myth of the Lunar New Year monster. You can find many shows and films that dive deeper into other culture's traditions, so curl up under a blanket, grab a bowl of popcorn, and celebrate.
Learn the Lunar New Year Traditions — and Respect Them
Yan-Shaefer said that if you aren't Asian, "join in the celebrations that take place on your campus or community. Dress in vibrant colors, such as red or gold to add to the joyful and festive atmosphere. Be open to trying traditional food items like dumplings, fish, and sticky rice cakes as they have positive symbolic meanings."
But there are also inappropriate ways to celebrate, Yan-Shaefer said, like being ignorant of some important customs and practices, like dressing in black or white, which are traditionally colors worn in times of mourning or eating food with symbolically negative meanings in the Chinese culture like chicken, lobsters, pears and white items (e.g. eggs and tofu).
Resources to Learn More About the Lunar New Year
Below are five great resources to help you learn more about Lunar New Year.
- History.com hosts a Lunar New Year 2023 resource page that provides visitors with the opportunity to learn more about the establishment of the lunar calendar during the Shang Dynasty and Lunar New Year traditions and foods. It's a great starting point to educate yourself on all aspects of this cultural holiday.
- One of the most recognizable Lunar New Year events is the famed lion dance. China Highlights provides a thorough explanation of the dance's history and symbolism. The site also discusses the various styles of dance, which vary greatly from region to region.
- At Asia Highlights, visitors can gain deeper insight about the Lunar New Year celebration in Vietnam, known as Tết Nguyên Đán, or just Tết. This resource details all the preparation that occurs before celebrations begin. Asia Highlights also includes valuable tips for those who wish to travel to take part in the festivities.
- Each Lunar New Year celebration is themed based on an animal of the Chinese zodiac. ChineseNewYear.net offers resources and articles about the 12 different animals of the Chinese zodiac, the history of the Chinese zodiac, and the science behind Chinese astrology.
- At Cambridge Network, you can learn about the tradition of giving and receiving red envelopes containing money, called hóngbāo (红包), during Lunar New Year. The site details the proper etiquette on how to give and receive these gifts, as well as the amounts considered appropriate depending on the relationship.
With Advice From:
Dr. Weirong Yan-Schaefer
Dr. Weirong Yan-Schaefer was born and raised in China, spending 10 years in Japan pursuing her master’s and PhD degrees. Currently, she is a senior instructor in the World Languages and Cultures Department at Missouri State University, where she teaches Chinese, Japanese and Asian Cultural Studies.