Lunar New Year Traditions Around the World
The Lunar New Year is an opportunity to spend time with friends and family, exchange gifts, and celebrate the times to come. This year, it falls on February first, almost a week away. So, in the spirit of the holiday, let’s take a trip around the world and learn more about this iconic holiday.
The Chinese lunisolar calendar is thousands of years older than the Gregorian solar calendar we’re used to seeing in the United States. Originating in ancient China, it tracks the year using various astrological phenomena. The new year actually begins on the second or third new moon after the winter solstice. This means that the lunar new year varies on which day it falls every year in relation to the western calendar. As Chinese culture spread across East Asia, so did their calendar. However, each country has its own unique way of celebrating this holiday as we will see below:
In China, 中國傳統新年, or the Spring Festival is seen as one of the most important holidays of the year. In mainland China, there are 7 official days off, but it’s celebrated for up to 16 days. Typically, Chinese families will travel to spend the new year with their families. This leads to the largest mass migration in the world – up to 2.9 billion people have been known to take transit journeys to reunite with loved ones for the on and around the new year in China alone.
The meal on New Year's Eve is considered the most important of the year. Similar to American Thanksgiving, the New Year's Eve meal is a feast of meats, spring rolls, rice cakes, and other delicacies. The appropriately named longevity noodles are eaten to, you guessed it, celebrate and wish for a long life. They’re made to be longer than normal noodles, with longer noodles believed to correlate with a longer life.
Famously, on New Year’s Day, children and/or the unmarried are given Red Envelopes, or 討紅包 in mandarin. These red envelopes are usually filled with cold, hard cash – pretty cool right? This tradition has a long history; it's derived from the Chinese practice of using coins to ward off evil spirits.
Tết Nguyên Đán is one of the most important days of the year in Vietnam, celebrating not only the new year but also the traditional beginning of spring. The celebrations and foods are based around the concept of renewal and new beginnings. In this spirit, flowers and plants like fig and peach trees are put around homes.
In the Vietnamese tradition, one’s behavior during Tet determines their fortunes for the rest of the year. For example, It is taboo to sweep during Tet because it can be seen as sweeping away any good luck. Similarly, the first person to enter a home in the new year has the power to determine the fortunes of the home until next year. So, usually families will invite someone of high moral character into their homes on Tet. Just to be safe though, the homeowner will often leave a few minutes before midnight and come back as soon as the new year begins, ensuring that no one else has the opportunity to enter first and bring in any bad fortune with them.
Of course, no Lunar New Year would be complete without delicious foods. A Tết staple is Bánh chưng, a tightly packed sticky rice filled with meat or beans. It’s considered good luck to eat vegetarian meals on Tết, so many meals like Dưa hành; pickled onion and cabbage, and Mứt; candied fruits, are meatless delicacies rarely eaten outside of Tet. Every New Year, foods are prepared specifically as offerings to ancestors at the family altar.
Ever since the Meiji Restoration in the 1870s, the Gregorian calendar has been the official calendar of Japan, and celebration of the traditional Lunar New Year has dwindled. However, many traditions live on to this day, celebrated on either January first, the Chinese Lunar New year, or both!
According to legend, one day, the sun goddess Amaterasu, the most important in the Shinto pantheon, disappeared, plunging the world into darkness. It was found that she had run away into a cave, unwilling to leave. After many failed efforts, she was eventually drawn from her cave using a mirror. She was so entranced by her own reflection, which she had never seen before, that she followed it out and back into the sky. This miracle was forever celebrated as the New Year.
Today, to celebrate the renewal of light Japanese eat, you guessed it: mochi! Kagami-mochi, or mirror mochi, is bright white and reflective, meant to evoke the mirror used to draw out Amaterasu. Traditionally on the new year, the mochi is snapped in half and eaten, bringing good luck in the coming year. The most iconic Japanese new year foods are classified as お節料理, Osechi-ryōri. These elaborate dishes, pictured above, are famous for their beautiful looks and intricately designed stackable boxes filled with omelets, nuts, seafood, and countless other delicacies.