So, What is the Lunar New Year?

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By Angelina Tang

For many of us AAPI (Asian American Pacific Islander) teenagers born in the states, the Lunar New Year stands as one of our strongest ties to our heritage. For one week or weekend, we can indulge in our culture by celebrating with family, eating traditional food, and attending galas or community celebrations. However, I’d like to add to that list by proposing that now is the best time of all to learn and teach others about the traditional meaning behind this holiday and how it’s celebrated in its motherland of Asia.


In simplest terms, the Lunar New Year is New Year’s day as traditionally celebrated in Asia following the lunar calendar. It’s a 15-day-long celebration–ending on the first full moon of the new year–that is primarily celebrated in China, Korea, and Vietnam. The way each culture celebrates it is unique, but in general, there is an emphasis on family and food.


Every year is represented by one of twelve zodiac animals, which are cycled through in a specific order as dictated by the legend of the Great Race. The story goes that the Jade Emperor, a Chinese god, staged a race between all the animals in the land, and the first twelve would be honored accordingly. The race ended with the animals having to cross a raging river, the winners being the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog, and boar, in that order. 2023 will be the Year of the Rabbit. Traditionally, if it’s your zodiac’s year, you should wear red every day for good luck. In practice, this is vividly impractical, so it’s mostly just a saying.


However, something interesting to note is that the zodiac in Vietnam is different. The rabbit is swapped out for the cat, and the ox for the buffalo. As such, in Vietnam, it’s now the Year of the Cat!


In China, people get an extended holiday, and workers in the city often travel into the suburbs or countryside, where their older relatives live, to celebrate together. Elders give children red envelopes filled with money. People often eat dumplings, or jiǎozi, as dinner on new year’s eve. Fish, or yú, is eaten on new year’s day because it sounds like the Mandarin word for surplus, yú. A certain Chinese legend states that at midnight on new year’s day, the Nian monster leaves its den in the mountains to terrorize villages. People set off firecrackers and put decorations on their homes to scare it away. Even today, it’s said that for the first fifteen minutes of the new year, you literally cannot hear anything but firecrackers outside.


The last day of the holiday is known as the Lantern Festival, or yuán xiāo jié, on which parades, parties, dances, and fireworks or firecrackers are set off. The lion dance is a staple of this festival, lanterns are lit around the house and at parades, and people eat yuán xiāo, a treat of small glutinous rice balls with sweet or savory filling, together.


Similarly, in Vietnam, people travel across the country to get together with families. Houses are traditionally decorated with flowers, and people honor their ancestors by cleaning the home and creating an altar, at which fruits, flowers, and food are placed. Buddhist prayer is often performed, even by non-Buddhists, to reconnect with themselves and their heritage. Bánh chưng, a rice cake wrapped in banana leaves, is prepared together in families. Fruit platters and pork are also popular.


In Korea, families gather at the eldest male relative’s home to celebrate. Younger family members should pay respects to and help out their older relatives. Elders may give polite children money in white or patterned envelopes as part of a tradition called sebae, and people eat tteokguk, a comfort-dish rice cake broth, on new year’s day. The dish represents prosperity and longevity.


The Lunar New Year is one of the biggest holidays of the year in Asia, and the celebration lasts for days or weeks at length with all of your family around you and high spirits in every household. However, in the states, due to the lack of a break allotted for the holiday, many families can only enjoy a special feast for one weekend in their own home. For instance, my family makes jiaozi on new year’s eve and fish on new year’s day, and we buy yuán xiāo for the Lantern Festival.


For many AAPI youth, this tends to be one of our only opportunities to connect with our culture, and even then, it is bittersweet. Without the company of extended family in Asia and the festivities of parades and firecrackers, we cling to our food and the spirit of community within our ethnic groups.


I hope that by spreading our culture and expanding beyond those groups, we may find yet another way to celebrate our culture in a more interconnected and understanding space.