(This post is a cross-post written by Dianne Choie, Educational Programs Specialist at the Library of Congress. It originally appeared on the blog Minerva’s Kaleidoscope.)
You may have counted down to midnight on December 31st to ring in 2024, but did you know that in some parts of the world, February 10th marks the beginning of another new year? Some communities who use the lunar calendar will soon celebrate the start of the Year of the Dragon. Read on for an overview of some of the traditions around these festivities.
What Is Lunar New Year?
Most of the world uses the Gregorian calendar, which is based on the Earth’s movement around the sun. The lunar calendar, on the other hand, is based on the monthly phases of the moon, which cycle every 29 or 30 days. While the Gregorian calendar is 365 days a year with one leap day every fourth year, the lunar year is 11 to 12 days shorter because of the different ways of counting months. This is why Lunar New Year is on a different day every year of the Gregorian calendar. The one we’re looking at today always falls in late January or in February.
Who Celebrates Lunar New Year?
Many different cultures use the lunar calendar, but only some celebrate the start of a new year at this time (see the end of the post for information about cultures that celebrate at other times of the year). In the United States, this wintertime celebration is often known as “Chinese New Year,” though people of Korean and Vietnamese descent also recognize this as the start of a new year. In China, the holiday is known as “Spring Festival.” Many details in this post about celebrations came from this book in the American Folklife Center’s reference library, among other sources: Griffin, Robert H. and Ann H. Shurgin, editors. The folklore of world holidays.
What’s Special About 2024’s Lunar New Year?
In the Chinese zodiac, each year is represented by one of twelve animals and one of five elements. 2024 marks the beginning of the year of the wood dragon. Because the dragon is the only mythical creature of the twelve animals, both dragons and those born during dragon years are said to be powerful and lucky. The element wood fuels fire and makes it stronger, so some say that the dragon’s powers this year will be even more enhanced! You can get ready for the Lunar New Year at home by printing out or downloading this Free to Use and Reuse set about dragons from the Library of Congress collection here.
How Do People Celebrate Lunar New Year?
There are different traditions associated with Lunar New Year depending on your culture and location. As people have immigrated from China, Korea, and Vietnam to other locations around the world, they have brought some of these traditions with them and made changes or additions as their families and locations change. In the United States, immigrant traditions like these have become part of the American story. The Library of Congress collects many of these stories; here are a few places to get started if you’re interested in Asian American history:
- Ethnic Grocers in the Urban Midwest (available online)
- Finding Roots: Asian American Farmers in Contemporary America (available online)
- Asian American and Pacific Islander Materials (available in the Manuscript Reading Room)
As with all cultural practices, every family is different and there is no one set of rules that applies to all Lunar New Year celebrations. In general, as with many holidays the world over, the New Year is a time to be with your loved ones and eat delicious foods together.
In China, many Lunar New Year celebrations share customs that are believed to be based on the legend of the Nian Monster, a fierce creature that was said to terrorize villagers on the last day of the lunar year. It’s said that an elderly man in the village was able to scare away the monster by wearing red clothes setting and off firecrackers with loud sounds and bright lights. To this day, you’ll see many people wearing red clothing and displaying red decorations, and you’ll often hear firecrackers being set off in celebration of Lunar New Year. Hopefully the Nian Monster stays away!
Outside, lion dance troupes might visit houses and shops in a community to bring good luck and also receive offerings of lettuce (cài [菜] means “vegetable” and cái [财] means “fortune,” so the green lettuce is supposed to bring good fortune) and red envelopes, which contain lucky money for the dancers. As you can see in the photo at the top of this post by contemporary documentary photographer Carol Highsmith (or if you’ve ever had the chance to see a lion dance troupe perform in person), lion dancers’ costumes are colorful and impressive. The lions’ faces look alive with animation, and the dancers’ moves can be wonderfully acrobatic. They certainly earn their red envelopes!
Many Chinese children also receive red envelopes of lucky money on Lunar New Year. Some people also write their wishes for the new year on red paper. People eat different kinds of food depending on their family and regional traditions: some eat dumplings (the shape is said to resemble parcels of money, another good omen for riches of all kinds in the new year), others share a whole fish together as a symbol of family unity, and some eat no meat at all as part of an act of renewal.
Other things some families avoid at the beginning of a new year are knives and scissors (they can cut your luck/wealth) and cleaning (sweeping or washing things can wash away good luck). For this reason, it’s customary to clean your house, wash your hair, and do any other cleaning before the start of the new year. Think of it as the lunar version of spring cleaning!
The Korean Lunar New Year celebration is called Seollal (설날). Traditionally, all Koreans turn a year older at the start of Seollal regardless of when your birthday is, and everyone is considered one year old when they’re born. This means that if you’re born the day before Lunar New Year, you’d be considered two years old on your second day of life! A law was recently passed in South Korea that ends this practice of measuring one’s age.
One of the most important Seollal traditions is sebae (세배), a ritual in which people kneel on the floor and perform a deep bow to their elders while saying, “May you receive much good fortune in the new year” (“새해 복 많이 받으세요”). Elders often give money to children who perform sebae.
Children and adults alike wear traditional clothing for sebae and throughout Seollal called hanbok (한복) that Koreans have been wearing for centuries. Hanboks are often colorful and are worn by adults and children alike, as you can see in the photo below.
A food that many Koreans eat on Seollal is tteokguk (떡국), rice cake soup. The rice cakes (tteok, 떡) are similar to Japanese mochi in that they’re made from glutinous rice flour. The flour is made into dough that’s sliced into thin ovals resembling coins, and eating the soup is said to bring good fortune in the new year (do you see a theme here?).
One other Seollal tradition that my family did growing up is play yut, also known as yutnori (윷놀이). Yut is a board game similar to Parcheesi or Sorry in which you want to be the first to move your pieces around the game board. Instead of dice, you throw four wooden sticks to determine how many spaces to advance depending on whether the sticks land on the flat sides or the round sides. There are potential shortcut paths you can take, but watch out—if another player lands on one of your markers, yours gets bumped all the way back to the start. There have been more than a few Choie family grievances that started with some harsh yut moves.
Lunar New Year in is known as Tết Nguyên Đán (hereafter referred to as Tết, but note that “Tết“ is a general term for the start of a new period of the year and there are multiple Tết holidays throughout the year), and it is the most important celebration of the year. There are many resources at the Library that you can use to learn more about Tết; one of the books I looked at is Tết Sài Gòn = Lunar New Year (Tet festival) in Saigon by Tam Thái, available in the Asian Reading Room.
As in China and Korea, Tết is a time to gather with one’s family. It’s also a time to remember one’s ancestors, with some families visiting and clearing ancestral gravesites in the days leading up to the start of the new year. You can hear an oral history recorded with a Vietnamese American talking about Tết and other aspects of his life in the American Folklife Collection here.
Some traditions are similar to those in China and Korea, such as children receiving new year money in lucky red envelopes. One element unique to Tết is the offering to Ông Táo, the Kitchen God. It is believed that Ông Táo spends time with the family all year and returns to heaven just before Tết to report on the family to the Jade Emperor. Ông Táo is considered to be a sort of member of the family, so offerings and prayers are given to him at the family altar.
Another Tết tradition is the display of a cây nêu, a new year tree made of a tall bamboo pole with decorations hung from the top end. Blossoms from peach or yellow apricot trees are also often used for Tết decoration.
A food commonly eaten during Tết is bánh chưng, sticky rice wrapped in leaves that may have pork and other ingredients inside. In different areas of Vietnam, the bánh chưng might be shaped into a square or cylinder during preparation.
What Other Cultures Use the Lunar Calendar?
As mentioned above, many cultures around the world use (or have used) the lunar calendar. Below are just a few examples of people who celebrate the start of a new lunar year during other seasons.
Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish new year that falls during September or October. One note about the Jewish calendar is that each date begins at sundown the night before, so Rosh Hashanah and other Jewish observances begin in the evening.
Laotian new year takes place in mid-April, the hottest time of the year and the start of the monsoon season in Laos. You can read about documenting Laotian new year festivities in Louisiana on the Folklife Today blog here.
Tibet and Nepal
Losar, the Tibetan Buddhist new year, is celebrated in February or March. In Nepal, a variation of the festival (Lhosar) is celebrated about two months earlier.
Hmong new year takes place in November or December, marking the end of the harvest season (not unlike Thanksgiving).
There are many other cultures that use the lunar calendar, and there are many, many other Lunar New Year traditions that you can explore on your own. Many thanks to the helpful librarians in the Main Reading Room, Cameron Penwell and Ryan Wolfson-Ford in the Asian Reading Room, Melanie Zeck in the American Folklife Center, and Edith Sandler in the Manuscript Reading Room who helped me with my research!
What kinds of traditions do you and your family have for recognizing a new year? Are any of the things you do together traditions that were passed down through your family, or have you created new traditions? We invite you to leave those in the comments. Whenever and however you celebrate, we hope you and your loved ones have a happy and healthy new year!
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