What Is Lunar New Year?

Posted on Jan 13, 2023

What Is Lunar New Year?

In the U.S., most people think of "the holiday season" as the time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. But for many others around the globe, now is the time to begin preparations for a different holiday. 

In January, hints of the looming festivities begin to pop up everywhere: bright red and gold paper banners; fabric lanterns; intriguing foods like "glutinous rice cake" at the grocery store; ornate packages of red envelopes; new menu items at favorite restaurants; ads and commercials announcing the upcoming "Year of the Rabbit."

It’s the Lunar New Year, observed by over a billion people around the world. In fact, it’s the most important holiday on the calendar for many cultures. What's it all about? 

Holiday Origins

Lunar New Year is based on a lunisolar calendar (similar to the Jewish/Hebrew calendar). The months of the lunisolar calendar are marked not by the earth’s orbit around the sun but by 12 “cycles” of the moon. The new year is celebrated over a two-week period, beginning from the night before the first day of the lunar year and lasting until the Lantern Festival, 15 days later.

The holiday is often called Chinese New Year in the U.S., and Spring Festival in China. Vietnam, South Korea, Indonesia, and Singapore are just a few of the many countries that also celebrate Lunar New Year.

Like many other holidays, Lunar New Year has roots in folklore. For example, each new year is named after one of five elements plus one of 12 animals, based on a myth about a race among these creatures. The current year is the Year of the Tiger, and the coming year (which begins on January 22) is named for the rabbit. 

Holiday Traditions

Traditional celebrations kick off with a lavish family feast, known as a reunion dinner (similar to Thanksgiving dinner in the U.S.). Family members travel far and wide to share in this feast together. Celebrations continue for the next two weeks. The foods and decorations associated with the Lunar New Year are richly symbolic. Often using homophones (words that sound alike but have different meanings), these items reflect a desire for prosperity, blessing, and joy in the year ahead. For example, the Chinese word for fish (“yu”) sounds like the word for “surplus” or “extra.” Fish is typically served as the last course in a traditional 8-course New Year’s feast, as an expression of hope that the coming year will be full of abundance beyond basic needs.

Another popular tradition involves special red envelopes containing money. These envelopes are often given from elders to children, as another symbol of a wish for blessing and prosperity throughout the coming year. 

Asian communities in the U.S. often sponsor Lunar New Year events to showcase diverse cultural traditions. The fun includes parades, lion dances, firework displays, specialized restaurant menus, and lantern decorations and festivals. 

Holiday Significance

Why does Lunar New Year matter? At its heart, Lunar New Year is about the hope of new beginnings and the importance of family. Many people also view the holiday as a bridge to both celebrating a unique cultural heritage and an opportunity to explore spirituality with those who celebrate this holiday.

“Chinese/Lunar New Year is a big deal overseas. I grew up in China during the Cultural Revolution (a Communist movement to abolish all Chinese history, including religion and holidays). For us, the New Year celebration had no meaning other than an extended time to gather with family. My dad worked in another city, which meant Spring Festival was the only time every year that I could see him.

The traditional New Year’s dinner was a special event, especially for kids. My family hardly saw any meat at the table; we ate mostly rice and vegetables. But our New Year reunion dinner always had meat and other delicious foods. That was the highlight of our entire year.

Now, the Lunar New Year celebration is significant because it represents a time for families to pause from their hard work to gather together. That is why most people who are working in other locations will travel home to see their families.

For many families, coming together requires a lot of money and time, but people are willing to spend both to enjoy this annual celebration.” 

- Jianbo Guo, Chinese Ministry Pastor

Whatever your own heritage and background may be, this week is a perfect time to learn more about this huge cultural event. A fun place to start: learning how to wish someone "Happy New Year" in Chinese!

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