Lunar New Year is one of the most important celebrations in China and many other Asian countries influenced by Chinese culture including, but not limited to, South Korea, Vietnam, and Malaysia.
It’s also celebrated where Chinese communities and those countries' overseas communities can be found. We, at Jenny & Andy, personally are of Chinese descent (based in Toronto, Canada), so we’ll be referring mainly to traditions that interpret Chinese New Year similarly!
So without further ado, here are 8 things you might not have known about Chinese Lunar New Year:
1. The Lunar New Year date changes each year.
The date of the Lunar New Year is determined by the lunar calendar. The holiday falls on the second new moon after the winter solstice on December 21.
Each year, the Lunar New Year falls on a different date than on the Gregorian calendar. The dates usually range sometime between January 21 and February 20. This year, in 2023, it starts on January 22.
It’s important to note:
Many countries share the interpretation of the Chinese Lunar calendar, such as South Korea, Vietnam, and Malaysia, and therefore celebrate their Lunar New Year at the same (or almost same) time.
However, there are many other countries or cultures which use their own lunar calendars, with New Years falling at different times. Mongolian lunar calendars, as well as Islamic and Jewish ones, for example, all have different months and cycles, and therefore celebrate Lunar New Year on different dates.
Learn more about Lunar New Year traditions in other countries!
2. It is the longest Chinese holiday
Chinese New Year, also called the Spring Festival, is technically 15 days. But celebrations start on New Year’s Eve (making it 16 days). You can also say that the holiday season starts in (lunar) December with the Laba Festival (腊八节 / là bā jié). That’s 40 days of celebrations!
3. Lunar new year is celebrated by a quarter of the world’s population.As mentioned above, Lunar New Year is not a celebration exclusive to China. Over 2 billion people celebrate Lunar New Year in some way, even if it’s just a national acknowledgment.
These countries have public holidays (of varying durations) during Lunar New Year: China, Indonesia, The Philippines, Vietnam, South Korea, Malaysia, North Korea, Singapore, and Brunei.
4. The Lunar New Year causes the largest human migration in the world
One of the most important part of Lunar New Year is the family reunion. Millions of people working or studying out of their hometowns will be hurrying home to reunite with families at this time. The migration back home during this time is called chunyun (春运), or Spring Migration.
Fun fact: the earliest you can buy train tickets in China is 60 days in advance, resulting in a mad rush of literal fighting for tickets. In 2015, statistics showed that around 1,000 tickets were sold each second.
5. No showering, sweeping or throwing out garbage allowed!
Showering, sweeping, throwing out garbage, and general cleaning is frowned upon on New Year’s Day. This is to make sure you don’t wash away the good luck!
On the other hand, there’s a day before Lunar New Year that's dedicated to cleaning. This is the day is to sweep the bad luck away and make room for the good.
6. Many Chinese New Year foods have special meanings
Many cultures have symbolic foods, such as the Yule Log cake. But in Chinese culture, lucky food is another very important part of the Lunar New Year celebration. People will prepare a variety of traditional dishes that have symbolic meanings.
These meals are more than mere dishes; they're symbols of luck and prosperity:
- Tangyuan is a sweet dessert soup with glutinous rice balls. Tangyuan (汤圆) literally means “soup balls” but it sounds like tuanyuan (团圆), which means reunion. So it’s no surprise it’s a popular dessert during Chinese New Year.
- Fish is an indispensable dish as the pronunciation of "fish" in Mandarin is yú (鱼), which is the same pronunciation as the Mandarin word for "surplus" (余). Therefore, eating fish invokes an abundance of food or wealth.
- On the first day of the Lunar New Year, people eat long noodles to symbolize a wish for longevity.
- Nian gao (年糕) is a type of sweet, sticky rice cake. The words 'nian gao' sounds like 'getting higher year on year', symbolizing raising oneself higher in each coming year.
- Dumplings represent prosperity and are believed to bring good fortune because their shape resembles gold ingots. Legend has it that the more dumplings you eat during the Chinese New Year celebrations, the more money you will make in the new year.
- Fa gao (发糕) is a the hybrid of sponge cakes and muffins. People dye it festive colors. The word ‘fa’ is the same as in ‘fa cai’ (发财), which means “to get rich.” Who doesn’t want that?!
7. Your Ben Ming Nian (AKA your zodiac year) is bad luck
There are twelve zodiac animal signs and each undergoes a 12-year cycle. Your Ben Ming year (本命年 / běn mìng nián) refers to the year of zodiac animal in which you were born, and of the 12-year cycle, it is the unluckiest for you.
So, every twelve years, you will meet the year of your birth sign. 2023 is year of the Rabbit, so those born in the year of the Rabbit meet their Ben Ming Nian this year.
Why is it unlucky?
It's said that the during your Ben Ming Nian, you are likely to encounter Tai Sui, the legendary God in charge of people's fortune. In meeting him, many bad things such as illness, financial loss, extramarital affair etc. may happen.
During your Ben Ming Nian year, your weapon of defense is the colour red. Just as you can decorate your home in red for protection and fortune, you can also wear red clothing. Some even wear red underwear every day of the year.
HOWEVER, according to the Chinese customs, the red underwear should be sent by others instead of buying for themselves. Only then can the effect of frightening away evil spirits be strengthened!
8. Legend says that Nian, half-dragon half-lion beast, attacks during the Lunar New Year
Chinese legend has it that Nian, a half-dragon, half-lion monster, comes out of hiding and attacks people (especially children) during the Lunar New Year.
The Legend of Nian 👹
A long, long time ago in ancient China, there was a fearsome beast called Nian 👹. Its head looked like a lion 🦁 with a sharp horn on it, with the body of a dragon 🐉. It lived at the bottom of the sea most of the time and would go ashore on the last day of the lunar year to eat livestock and people, especially children.
One day, an old man with silver hair arrived to the village and claimed that he could drive the cruel beast away 👴🏻. However, all of the villagers were too scared to believe him and still took off for hiding before nightfall.
Come nightfall 🌖, Nian broke into the village as usual and just as it was ready to attack, suddenly the sound of firecrackers arose together with bright flares 🧨. Nian trembled and stopped in his tracks. Then the old man appeared dressed in red, and this sent Nian into a frenzy. It was terrified and quickly ran away.
When the villagers returned home and found their houses and livestock were safe and sound, they came to realize that the old man was a celestial being who had come to help them. The old man told them the three secret weapons to drive Nian away: items that are red in colour 🛑, bright lights 🚨, and firecrackers 🧨.
From then on, on the last day of the year, people put up red decorations, hung up red lanterns, and set off firecrackers to keep safe from Nian 🏮. As time passed, this custom spread to almost every corner of China and thus developed into one of the most important festivals of Chinese people, the Lunar New Year's Eve 🇨🇳.
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- China Highlights. Chinese New Year VS Lunar New Year: Differences and Controversies
- China Today. The Laba Festival
- Chongqing. A Closer Look at the World's Largest Annual Human Migration: Chunyun
- Confucius Institute For Scotland. The Legend of the Beast Nian – Origins of Chinese New Year
- Wake Forest University. History of Chinese New Year
- Your Chinese Astrology. Ben Ming Nian