This celebration of new beginnings in Asian communities includes a mix of customs from the East and West BY MINHAE SHIM ROTH
Jan 27, 2022
While people around the globe welcome the new year by counting down to midnight on December 31, members of Asian communities also celebrate new beginnings during Lunar New Year, which begins on February 1 in 2022. While Lunar New Year is commonly referred to as Chinese New Year, the holiday – which spans the first 15 days of the first month of the lunar calendar – is also celebrated across Asia and Southeast Asia in countries like Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines, Tibet, Mongolia, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. China’s Lunar New Year is known as the Spring Festival or Chūnjié in Mandarin, while Korea calls it Seollal and Vietnam refers to it as Tết.
Asian Americans in the U.S. celebrate Lunar New Year in their own ways, mixing traditions from the East and West to satisfy our unique cultural identities. While traveling and spending time with friends and family is at the heart of Lunar New Year, with the pandemic, many are celebrating with their loved ones virtually and navigating the time differences over FaceTime, KakaoTalk, WeChat and Zoom. Whether you’re an immigrant, Asian American or an ally, take Lunar New Year as an opportunity to reaffirm your goals and recharge your hopeful energy for the coming year. After all, Lunar New Year is about starting on a clean slate, cleansing the negative and welcoming the positive, and setting intentions for a prosperous, lucky and fulfilling year — and who doesn’t need some extra positive vibes in this year of the Tiger?
What are the traditions of Lunar New Year?
Each country and every individual celebrates Lunar New Year a little bit differently with distinctive traditions, foods and festivities, but here are a few you might experience.
It makes sense to welcome in a new era with a cleanse, and those who celebrate Lunar New Year often prepare for the holiday by literally cleaning every corner of their house, or at least trying to. Dr. Jianguo Chen, an associate professor of Chinese at the University of Delaware, says, “It is customary for people to completely clean their houses to get rid of bad fortune from the old year.” In China, after cleaning, people decorate their houses with the color red in forms like festive scrolls, folk painting, paper-cuts, and lanterns. “Bright red is the preeminent color of festivity, symbolic of good health and fortune, wealth, prosperity and longevity,” he says.
While we greet people in January with a basic “Happy New Year” in the U.S., various Asian countries have different sayings in their respective languages. In Korea, to honor elders, people say “Saehae bok mani badeuseyo,” which means, “Please receive a lot of good fortune for the New Year.” Chen says that in China, people greet each other with phrases like “Gōng xǐ fā cái” in Mandarin and “Gung hei faat coi” in Cantonese, which mean “Wishing you a happy and prosperous Chinese New Year.” In Vietnam, people say, “Chúc mừng năm mới,” which simply means “Happy New Year” in Vietnamese.
Gathering with family
Like any other major holiday, Lunar New Year is a time to be with your loved ones, and for many, it is the one time a year they travel back to see their families. “Typically, on the first day of the festival, people would pay a visit to their elderly and respected by offering good wishes,” says Chen. Travel guides often warn of congested streets and overbooked international flights during the period. Coming from different parts of the globe, several generations of family gather to eat the family reunion dinner, catch up, and reminisce during Lunar New Year.
Giving and receiving red envelops
Nothing signifies Lunar New Year more in pop culture than little red envelopes adorned in gold and stuffed with cash. During a visit to older relatives, people are usually gifted money in these red envelopes, known as Hónɡ bāo in China. In the Philippines, the red envelopes are called Ang Pao and Vietnam calls them “Li xi,” or “lucky money.” In Korea, however, money from the elders called sae bae don, translated as “new year’s money,” is usually given not in red but in white or patterned envelopes.
Buying new clothes
To refresh the wardrobe and prep to impress the grandparents, people who celebrate Lunar New Year will sometimes purchase and wear new traditional clothing. In Korea, people wear traditional garb called Hanbok for formal occasions and holidays, including Lunar New Year. Women’s Hanbok consists of a long skirt and a short jacket in colorful patterns and lustrous materials. In China, women can wear Qípáo or Cheongsam, a high-necked and often short-sleeved dress, for the holiday.
Attending a lantern festival
In China, Lunar New Year ends with the Lantern Festival, a celebration that includes folk dancing, traditional games, lantern parades, and dragon and lion dances. People also eat glutinous rice balls, called Yuánxiāo or Tāngyuán, which are sweet treats with various fillings like black sesame, peanuts, red bean, rose petals, and rock sugar. According to Chen, in China, the Lantern Festival is sometimes known as China’s Valentine’s Day, where singles hope to meet their new flame. He says, “Needless to say, setting off firecrackers is an important part of the Chinese New Year and also of the Lantern Festival.”
What foods are traditionally eaten for Lunar New Year?
“Holidays are about eating, and the Spring Festival [in China] is particularly so,” says Chen. You might see:
While some associate moon cakes with Lunar New Year, the delicacy is actually used for the Mid-Autumn Festival. Dumplings, or Jiǎozi in Mandarin, are a staple for Lunar New Year celebrations. “Since the shape of Jiǎozi looks like gold ingots used as currency in the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), eating Jiǎozi, so it was believed folklorically, would bring prosperity,” says Chen. “Some parents would even hide a big clean coin inside a Jiǎozi for the lucky kid to find as a table game on Chinese New Year’s Eve.”
Rice Cake Soup
For Seollal, Korea’s Lunar New Year, Koreans eat Tteokguk, literally translated as “rice cake soup.” The savory soup is made with thin disk-shaped rice cakes that resemble coins, which symbolize prosperity. In Korea, they say you get one year older when you eat a bowl of rice cake soup. The dish, which is made with water, small chunks of beef, green onion, egg, and rice cakes, is predominantly white in color, which signifies purity and new beginnings.