By Alice Li
Happy New Year! Happy Lunar New Year, that is! The Gregorian calendar, or Western calendar, is based on solar cycles, begins on January 1st, and is the calendar widely used today. The lunar calendar, however, is based on phases of the moon, and was traditionally used in Asian cultures. Although Asian countries now rely on the Gregorian system, major holidays and festivals are still celebrated according to the lunar calendar. In Japan, however, New Year’s celebrations are now held on January 1st.
In many Asian cultures, Lunar New Year holds more significance than Western New Year, and is often the most important holiday of the year. It is a time for family reunions, ushered in with much celebration and festivity. Each culture has their own special customs, traditions, and foods.
Chinese New Year is also known as Spring Festival, and lasts for fifteen days until the first full moon. To prepare for New Year, people clean their houses extensively, sweeping out bad luck so that good luck can come in. On New Year’s Eve, families gather together to have a reunion meal, during which many dishes are served. Among these dishes are Buddha’s delight, chicken, fish, dumplings, New Year’s cake, taro and turnip cakes, and crispy triangles. Many of the foods are symbolic or have homophonic significance. The word for fish, for example, sounds like the word for “surplus”—the dish is usually left untouched until the next day to represent “having wealth left over.”
On New Year’s Day and throughout the week, people visit family and friends with greetings. They wear new clothes, socks, and shoes for the New Year to symbolize a fresh start. Children and unmarried people receive red envelopes containing money for good luck. Celebrations throughout the New Year feature lion dances, dragon dances, fireworks, and firecrackers. On the fifteenth day, New Year culminates with the Lantern Festival, during which lanterns are hung, glutinous rice balls are eaten, and families spend time together.
Seollal, or Korean New Year, is three days long. On the day before New Year’s, people clean their houses, take baths, and burn bamboo sticks to rid their homes of demons. Lights are kept on in every room, and people stay awake through New Year’s Eve so as to meet the New Year brightly. The next morning, tteokguk, soup with round rice cakes, leeks, eggs, and meat, is eaten to symbolize becoming a year older. People visit their friends and family wearing traditional clothing called hanbok to wish for good luck and prosperity. Younger people greet their elders with deep bows and blessings, and in return are given luck bags containing New Year’s money. People play games, fly kites, spin tops, and play in the snow.
Mongolian New Year, known as Tsagaan Sar, is traditionally three days long, but festivities can last for up to a month. Women begin cooking in advance to make buuz, steam dumplings made of beef, onion, and fat, boov, biscuits made out of flour, and uuts, a sheep’s back and tail, which represents wealth and prosperity for the family. New Year’s Eve, or Bituun, involves cleaning the home and barn, burning candles to symbolize enlightenment, and placing three pieces of ice in the doorway for the mule of the goddess Baldanlham, who is believed to visit each home three times on New Year’s Eve. On New Year’s Day, people wear new deel, traditional Mongol clothing, and younger people visit their elders to pay respects. Guests are served tea and buuz, and given pastries and other small gifts before they leave.
In Vietnam, Lunar New Year is known as Tết Nguyên Đán, often shortened to Tết. One to two weeks beforehand, people return home, visit and clean the graves of relatives, and being cooking, cleaning, and decorating for the New Year. At midnight, bells are rung in the Buddhist temples, and people burn incense and pray. Beginning on New Year’s Day and lasting for three days, people visit friends and family to deliver greetings, and children receive red envelopes containing money from their elders. Parades feature drums, bells, and gongs to scare off evil spirits, and Lan dances. Families gather to eat traditional foods such as sticky rice filled with beans or meat and wrapped in leaves, meat stewed in coconut juice, pig’s trotters stewed with bamboo shoots, steamed glutinous rice, papaya salad, and mung bean pudding. People play Tết games and watch fireworks.
This year, Lunar New Year falls on February 10th. Many festivities are planned for in the LA area—the Chinese Chamber of Commerce of Los Angeles will present its 114th Annual Golden Dragon Parade and New Year Festival, Pacific Asia Museum will hold its 3rd Annual Lunar New Year Festival, Monterey Park will put on a Flower Market, and various other Lunar New Year festivities will take place. Take the chance to go experience some of these celebrations for yourself! And don’t forget, it’s a time for reunions—spend some time with your family and friends!
References and further reading:
“Korean New Year,” HolidayYear, http://holidayyear.com/holiday/korean-new-year
“Tet Nguyen Dan–The Vietnamese New Year,” Queen’s Botanical Garden, http://www.queensbotanical.org/2630/56902/57016/vietnam
“Vietnamese New Year Customs,” Vietnam-Culture, http://www.vietnam-culture.com/articles-152-31/Vietnamese-New-Year-Customs.aspx
“Tsagaan Sar-Mongolian Lunar New Year,” Portuguese-Mongolian Association, http://www.portugalmongolia.com/mongoliaarticles/48-tsagaan-sar-mongolian-lunar-new-year
“Tsagaan Sar: The Mongolian Lunar New Year,” Mongoluls, http://mongoluls.net/tsagaansar.shtml