Lunar New Year is one of the biggest celebrations in the world. This year, Lunar New Year falls on February 12th and is the Year of the Ox. Many people think of China first when hearing Lunar New Year, but it is actually celebrated by many other Asian countries, regions and diaspora. Along with that comes a range of unique customs and traditions.
Lunar New Year in China
A girl holding a firecracker during the Lunar New Year period. (Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)
In China, Lunar New Year is the busiest time of the year. The bustling of families running to catch their train and long lines of traffic from cities to hometowns shows just how busy it is.
Also known as Chūnjié, or the Spring Festival, the Lunar New Year traditionally spans a total of 15 days. Even before Lunar New Year starts, families are busy preparing to greet guests at their doorsteps. Everything is cleaned to wash away the bad luck of the past year.
Once the first day of the Lunar New Year comes, all this cleaning stops for fears that good fortune in the New Year will be swept away. New clothes are worn, or gifted to family members, to symbolize a fresh start. Red envelopes, or hóng bāo, full of money are given by adults to smiling children and young adults.
Considering red is a lucky color, it is natural that not only the envelopes are red, but also the decorations everywhere from red lanterns to red paper cut-outs. Even the lighting firecrackers and fireworks may be red. The loud noise of the firecrackers enhances the festive spirit and follows one of Lunar New Year’s most well known legends. As the legend goes, a monster called Nian would come out to eat villagers and destroy their houses on each Lunar New Year’s Eve. To scare Nian away, villagers made explosive sounds like the sound of firecrackers by burning dry bamboo. To this day, these sounds can be heard during the Lunar New Year festivities.
No matter how fun the burning of firecrackers is, the food to be shared with loved ones is what everyone is waiting for. Jiǎozi is a classic New Year’s food that resembles an antiquated currency suggesting good fortune for the New Year. The more dumplings you eat, the more money you will get.
Lunar New Year in Vietnam
Popular dishes to eat during the Lunar New Year with family. (Murtahil)
In Vietnam, Lunar New Year is called Tết Nguyên Đán, or Feast of the Very First Morning. Celebrations for Tết can last up to seven days. When looking from afar, Lunar New Year in Vietnam can feel similar to that in China. Adults give small red envelopes filled with cash to children, special holiday food is shared with family, fireworks are launched to scare away evil spirits just like Nian. But when looking closer, there are unique customs and traditions that are only done in Vietnam.
Before the Lunar New Year, red and yellow are displayed in homes and on the streets to bring good fortune. People are seen paying off as much debt as possible so that they can start off the year anew. Family altars are thoroughly cleaned and new offerings are placed there. Fruit trays with five different fruits are put out on display in the home for all guests to see.
The dawn of the Lunar New Year is the most important time. Vietnamese consider what they do on the dawn of Tết determines their fate for the whole year. Families start visiting each other and eating delicious food that takes days to prepare. Two popular foods are bánh chưng, or savory rice cakes, and bánh giầy, or glutinous rice cake. Both of them are made to express gratitude to ancestors and homeland.
During the Lunar New Year, it is important to wish each other prosperity and luck. These wishes are passed onto the nuclear family on the first day of Tết. Traditionally but not strictly, friends are also given wishes on the second day and teachers, who command respect in Vietnam, are visited on the third day.
Lunar New Year in Mongolia
An elder and young woman performing “zolgokh,” a special greeting done to an elder.
Mongolia also celebrates Lunar New Year, or Tsagaan Sar (Цагаан сар), to renew family ties and honour the elderly. Just like China and Vietnam, homes are cleaned up thoroughly on New Year’s Eve and new clothes are prepared in advance. Some families even ride their finest horses.
In the evening, families prepare a big meal with lots of fresh food for a feast, such as dumplings, meat, and dairy products. One of the most popular dishes is a tower of pastries. Long rounded scone-like cookies are arranged to evoke Mount Sumeru—a five-peaked mountain of holy importance to Hindu, Jain and Buddhist cosmology.
Some families sit around to watch the countrywide broadcasting of a big wrestling match, while children play traditional games, mostly with toys made with animal bones. At night, before sleeping, three pieces of ice are put at the doorway for the horse of the deity Palden Lhamo to drink while he visits the family.
The first to wake up in the morning of the New Year is the housewife, who wakes up before dawn to offer the first cup of tea to gods in all directions. After the sunrise, families burn incenses and pray for a successful and peaceful year. Then, families gather again to enjoy the festivities. They stretch their arms and the younger supports the elbows of the senior. This gesture is called “zolgolt” and is done to give energy to the elders to help them get through another year. In exchange, the senior or elder wishes a long and happy life to the young.
Lunar New Year in South Korea
Food prepared as a gift for one’s ancestors on Lunar New Year (Asia Society)
Lunar New Year, or Seollal (설날), in South Korea is the most important time of the year. Even though it is only three days long, families travel back to their family homes and enjoy the festivities with loved ones. Children are seen wearing hanbok, traditional Korean clothes, and playing games with each other.
Before Lunar New Year, a great number of dumplings and other traditional foods are made for the ceremonies that will take place on Lunar New Year. Making dumplings takes a long time and is seen as an activity to be done by the family together.
Although spending time together with the family is important, the most important part of Seollal is preparing food as a gift for one’s ancestors. Food is set out on a large table where family members perform deep bows to show respect to their ancestors. Once this is done, all family members sit down together and dig into the delicious foods. The most important food is tteokguk, a soup made using sliced rice cakes. The act of eating tteokguk on the New Year turns everyone one year older. The clear broth symbolizes a fresh, clear start to the New Year, while rice cakes resemble coins offering prosperity.
After eating, younger people kneel on the ground and bow deeply so that their hands are on the ground. While doing this, they wish them luck in the New Year. In return, the elders give them money tucked inside an envelope.
Lunar New Year in Tibet
Traditional dancing that takes place during the festival. (Tibetpedia)
In Tibet, Lunar New Year is known as Losar (ལོ་གསར་). Losar is actually not always on the same date as China’s Lunar New Year, but it is usually not far off. The days preceding Lunar New Year have similarities to other countries that celebrate the New Year. Families are cleaning their houses and cooking special dishes. One special dish is a soup served with small dumplings called Guthuk. These dumplings are special in which some are jokingly stuffed with small pebbles, wool, charcoal or hot chilli inside. Each symbolizes something different; for example, wool symbolizes good-heartedness, while a coin will bring prosperity and fortune.
A special ceremony is done before the Lunar New Year to expel ghosts. People carry big bowls of food out of their house while a number of people holding torches run after them yelling to get rid of evil spirits from their houses. Everyone arrives at a big campfire before smashing the bowls and throwing them into the fire.
On the first day of Lunar New Year, the housewife wakes up very early. She sits beside the window waiting for the sunrise. As the first ray of sunshine hits the earth, she takes a bucket and heads to a nearby river or well to fetch the year’s first bucket of water. This water is seen as the clearest water of the coming year and whoever reaches the river/well first is blessed with good luck for the coming year. Other family members start waking up and put on new clothes after taking a bath. Together, families place offerings to the gods and exchange gifts. More food is shared, some even given to the deities, such as barley grains and wild ginseng.
Children offer gifts to their elders on Losar. Wearing traditional clothing, they bring baskets containing cooked meats, steamed dumplings, fruit, sweets and traditional bread for the elderly.
Even in countries that do not traditionally celebrate the Lunar New Year, like Canada, the growth of Asian populations, especially those of Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese descent, has contributed to the increasing celebration and cultural awareness of Lunar New Year. Although celebrations and formal dates encompassing the holiday vary by place and culture, one common sentiment is shared: reuniting with immediate and extended family to ring in the New Year.
To learn more about Lunar New Year traditions and history:
South Korea: https://www.90daykorean.com/korean-lunar-new-year/
Celebratory Words from VAHMS’ President
Looking ahead to the Lunar New Year, I am both excited about the celebration, and hopeful that we will all come out of this global COVID-19 struggle as more resilient and stronger communities. Lunar New Year celebrations are always joyful opportunities to share our new hopes, prosperity, and the welcoming of light. Children, in particular, love this time because of the stories, the sweets, and the presents, but while good food and presents are enjoyable, share time with family and friends is the most treasured, even if it must be virtually this time.
So, as the Lunar New Year celebrations are enjoyed around the world, here at home, we are also proud of all the different cultures and heritages that enrich our country’s diversity.
Wishing everyone prosperity and success this 2021 Lunar New Year.
Leticia Sanchez, President
Vancouver Asian Heritage Month Society