Chinese or Lunar New Year is a holiday observed by many east and southeast Asian cultures, more than 1.5 billion people in the world celebrate this holiday!
What is Lunar New Year?
The Lunar New Year follows the lunar calendar instead of the “common” calendar which is based around the sun, thus the date of the new year changes every year on the regular calendar. It’s always “1/1” on the lunar calendar! This year is the year of the rabbit for most cultures except for the Vietnamese, it’s the year of the cat for them which is super unique.
How to celebrate Lunar New Year
Each culture has its own unique celebration but it’s all about spending time with family.
To prepare for Lunar New Year, a deep cleaning of the house and spaces is required(大掃除) to ensure the new year starts fresh, leaving the bad and the dirty behind. Shopping for new clothes, shoes, food, flowers, and decorations is also a must. My mom would start prepping a month ahead!
Red and gold is the color theme of the month of New Year, the colors symbolize good fortune, prosperity, and good luck. Wearing red or gold is a must to conjure all the good luck and fortune the following year. If you don’t have red or gold, any other color will do, but black and white are for the dead, so avoid those colors.
Fruits and food make great decor, there are lots of foods with special meanings. For example oranges (橘jú or 桔jí) sounds like 吉(jí), good luck; apples symbolize good health; daikon radish in Taiwanese is called “càitáo”, which sounds like 彩頭 (cǎitóu), a different kind of luck, honestly, there aren’t enough English phrases to explain the different types of luck and good fortunes in Chinese properly.
“Gao”, 糕, types of “cakes” are also musts during the Lunar New Year. “Cakes” in Asia are not always the fluffy kinds in the Western world, again there are not enough English phrases to properly address the differences, these gaos can come in all different textures, some like mochi, some of them savory, some of them dense, and some of them flakey. The reason we eat “Gao” during Lunar New Year is that Gao 糕 sounds like 高(Gao) which means high, we want all the good luck to be heightened in the new year. Popular Gaos include 年糕 (niángāo, year gao), 發糕 (fāgāo, prosper gao), or 蘿蔔糕 (luóbogāo, or 菜頭粿 càitáoguì in Taiwanese, radish cake). Can you figure out what each of them represents after what you learned from this paragraph?
New Year’s Eve 除夕夜
On New Year’s Eve(除夕夜), families gather around a round table to eat “together dinner” (團圓飯). It’s a family feast that consists of a variety of dishes that symbolizes good luck for the new year. You can learn more about some of the must-eat dishes and their significance here on CHOOCHOO-ca-CHEW.
Firecrackers are set off at the stroke of midnight, greetings are exchanged and red envelopes with money that symbolize good luck are given to the children of the family. Our family starts every new year “clean” by eating vegan, mountains of my mom’s special vegan dumplings are boiled and enjoyed after the exchange of red envelopes.
Mom would put a coin in one of the dumplings(or a date for sanity reasons), whoever gets the dumpling with a coin is said to have great luck and fortune in the new year.
The first day of the new year 大年初一
Starting the new year fresh and clean, my family enjoys vegan foods till sundown and wears new clothes and shoes. No handling of sharp tools, no bad thoughts nor bad phrases. Lots of firecrackers. Going to temples to pray for good luck and fortune and going out to explore(走春) are things we’d do before another family dinner.
The second day of the new year 回娘家
The married daughters and their family returns to their maiden home to visit and bring gifts. All gifts and food should be in even numbers, odd numbers are said to be bad luck. 8(ba) is always a great number as it sounds like “fa”(發), which means prosperity.
Each day of the new year includes visiting different family members and eating. Lots of eating.
The celebration doesn’t end there, there’s a different tradition to follow each day of the new year. People would usually get 5 days off from work in Taiwan, and the new year celebration and activities last at least 15 days.
The 15th day of the new year 元宵節
The 15th day of the Lunar New Year is a festival of its own called “元宵節” (YuanXiao Festival). Light sculptures and lanterns fill and light parks up all around Taiwan, with hourly light shows and street vendors lining the streets. Kids would carry lanterns to walk around admiring all the beautiful sculptures and tasting unique street food. The must-eat food of this day is “Yuan Xiao”, a sticky rice dumpling filled with a sweet filling such as sesame, peanuts, or azuki beans. Yuan Xiao tastes a lot like Tang Yuan and the ingredients are similar, but the process of making them is different than Tang Yuan. (Learn more about Tang Yuan in our post here: Celebrating Winter Solstice in Rochester MN)