Lunar New Year is one of the most important celebrations of the year among East and Southeast Asian cultures, including Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean communities, among others. The New Year celebration is usually celebrated for multiple days—not just one day as in the Gregorian calendar’s New Year. In 2022, Lunar New Year begins on February 1.
China’s 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.
Tied to the lunar calendar, the holiday began as a time for feasting and to honor household and heavenly deities, as well as ancestors. The New Year typically begins with the first new moon that occurs between the end of January and spans the first 15 days of the first month of the lunar calendar—until the full moon arrives.
Each year in the Lunar calendar is represented by one of 12 zodiac animals included in the cycle of 12 stations or “signs” along the apparent path of the sun through the cosmos.
The 12 zodiac animals are the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and pig. In addition to the animals, five elements of earth, water, fire, wood and metal are also mapped onto the traditional lunar calendar. Each year is associated with an animal that corresponds to an element.
The year 2022 is slated to be the year of the water tiger. The water tiger comes up every 60 years. The water tiger is action-oriented and represents strength, bravery and clearing away evil.
Lunar New Year Foods and Traditions
Each culture celebrates the Lunar New Year differently with various foods and traditions that symbolize prosperity, abundance and togetherness. In preparation for the Lunar New Year, houses are thoroughly cleaned to rid them of inauspicious spirits, which might have collected during the old year. Cleaning is also meant to open space for good will and good luck.
Some households hold rituals to offer food and paper icons to ancestors. Others post red paper and banners inscribed with calligraphy messages of good health and fortune in front of, and inside, homes. Elders give out envelopes containing money to children. Foods made from glutinous rice are commonly eaten, as these foods represent togetherness. Other foods symbolize prosperity, abundance and good luck.
Chinese New Year is thought to date back to the Shang Dynasty in the 14th century B.C. Under Emperor Wu of Han (140–87 B.C.), the tradition of carrying out rituals on the first day of the Chinese calendar year began.
“This holiday has ancient roots in China as an agricultural society. It was the occasion to celebrate the harvest and worship the gods and ask for good harvests in times to come,” explains Yong Chen, a scholar in Asian American Studies.
Beginning in 1949, under the rule of Chinese Communist Party leader Mao Zedong, the government forbade celebration of the traditional Chinese New Year and followed the Gregorian calendar.
But by the end of the 20th century, Chinese leaders were more willing to accept the tradition. In 1996, China instituted a weeklong vacation during the holiday—now officially called Spring Festival—giving people the opportunity to travel home and to celebrate the new year.
Did you know? San Francisco, California, claims its Chinese New Year parade is the biggest celebration of its kind outside of Asia. The city has hosted a Chinese New Year celebration since the Gold Rush era of the 1860s, a period of large-scale Chinese immigration to the region.
Today, the holiday prompts major travel as hundreds of millions hit the roads or take public transportation to return home to be with family.