Sunday, Jan. 22, marks the Lunar New Year, often called Chinese New Year, one of the most important annual celebrations in East and Southeast Asian culture.
Each year in the lunar calendar is represented by one of 12 zodiac animals: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and pig. It is also represented by one of five elements: earth, water, fire, wood and metal. Each year, the zodiac animal pairs with one of those five elements.
This year is the year of the rabbit, the most recent of which was in 2011. This year, the rabbit corresponds with water, making it the year of the water rabbit, which comes every 60 years. The water rabbit is a kind, gentle yet confident spirit who can adjust readily to different conditions.
The Lunar New Year is typically celebrated over multiple days. In China, the Lunar New Year is known as the Spring Festival or Chūnjié in Mandarin, while Koreans call it Seollal and Vietnamese refer to it as Tết.
The New Year usually begins with the first new moon that occurs at the end of January and lasts through the first 15 days of the first month of the lunar calendar — until the full moon arrives.
The celebration began as a time for feasting and to honor household and heavenly deities, as well as ancestors, often asking for a good planting and harvest season.
The Lunar New Year is celebrated across a number of countries in East and Southeast Asia, each of which has its own traditions to celebrate the occasion.
In China, people stay up on New Year’s Eve and set off firecrackers at midnight, and then firecrackers are used again in the morning to welcome the new year and for good luck. The firecrackers are said to ward off monsters.
In Chinese culture, fish is typically included as a last course of a New Year’s Eve meal for good luck, as the word for fish is pronounced the same as the word “surplus” or “abundance.” Chinese New Year’s meals also include foods like glutinous rice ball soup, moon-shaped rice cakes and dumplings. Often, a clean coin is tucked inside a dumpling for good luck.
In China, the holiday ends with the Lantern Festival, which is celebrated on the last day of New Year’s festivities. Parades, dances, games and fireworks mark the finale of the holiday. During the New Year period, it is taboo in China to cut your hair; use scissors, knives and other sharp things; argue or swear; say unlucky words (such as “death” and “sickness”) or to break things.
In Vietnam, families feast on five-fruit platters to honor their ancestors, and the celebration also includes eating a rice cake made with mung beans, pork, and other ingredients wrapped in bamboo leaves. Snacks called mứt tết, made from dried fruits or roasted seeds mixed with sugar, are commonly offered to guests.
In both China and Vietnam, elders give money in red envelopes, but in North and South Korea money is given in white and patterned envelopes.
Also in both North and South Korea, traditional New Year’s dishes include a sliced rice cake soup and one made from five different grains.
Across East and Southeast Asia, the holiday prompts major travel and is when many return home to celebrate with their families.