Lunar New Year is one of the most popularly celebrated holidays in Asia. Also known as Chinese New Year, the holiday serves as a time for people to gather and feast with family, pay respects to ancestors and gods, sweep away ill fortune and negativity of the previous year, and usher in a new era full of prosperity and good luck.
What is Lunar New Year?
Lunar New Year is the most important holiday in China and in countries with large populations of ethnically Chinese people, including Vietnam, Taiwan, South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, Myanmar, Indonesia, and Thailand.
Historians aren’t exactly sure when Lunar New Year first began being celebrated, but it’s believed that the holiday first began sometime during the Song Dynasty (960–1279 C.E.), when sacrifices were held to honor gods and ancestors. Over the centuries, the custom has evolved to become what it is today.
The Lunar New Year origin legend
As with many beliefs and customs of Chinese origin, the beginnings of Lunar New Year are also steeped in folklore. According to legend, in ancient times there was once a ferocious monster named “Nian” (a word that means “year” in Chinese) who had sharp teeth and horns and was fond of eating children and attacking villagers at the beginning of each new year. One day, an old beggar dressed in rags arrived at a remote village seeking a place to stay for the night. In return, he offered to protect the village from Nian and soon set to work decorating the village with red paper.
When Nian arrived at midnight, he became frightened upon seeing the houses and buildings that were plastered with red. Then the beggar, wearing red clothing, leaped out from his hiding place and began setting off firecrackers; Nian quickly ran away in terror. Realizing that Nian was afraid of the color red and of loud noises, the villagers began lighting firecrackers and dressing in red each year to ward away the monster—a custom that soon spread across the country.
When is Lunar New Year in 2023?
This year, festivities will begin on January 22 and end on February 5. Lunar New Year is typically celebrated for about 15 or 16 days, but the exact dates vary each year as they’re determined by the lunisolar Chinese calendar. Typically, it’s observed on the second new moon following the winter solstice—the festival is supposed to signify the end of winter and the beginning of spring and all the new life that will soon blossom.
Lunar New Year also corresponds to a new cycle in Chinese astrology, and 2023 will be the year of the water rabbit. There are 12 signs in the Chinese zodiac (represented by animals: the pig, ox, dog, rat, rooster, tiger, monkey, rabbit, goat, dragon, horse, and snake), as well as five different elemental attributes (water, earth, wood, metal, and fire). But unlike the Western zodiac, each cycle in Chinese astrology spans a year—rather than a month—and is characterized by both an animal sign and an element. For example, 2022 was the year of the wood tiger, which symbolizes resilience and strength. In 2023, the year of the water rabbit, it’s projected that the months to come will be hopeful and peaceful.
How is Lunar New Year celebrated?
The Lunar New Year serves as a time for people to gather with families and to celebrate—big—usually by having huge feasts with symbolic dishes. This annual movement of people traveling from their places of work (often in cities) to their hometowns is so significant in China that it has a name—chun yun (the spring movement)—and is often called the world’s largest migration.
Some dishes that you might see gracing the Lunar New Year table include:
Dumplings: Their unique shape resembles a yuanbao, or Chinese golden ingot, which was used as currency in ancient times. Consuming more dumplings is said to bring wealth to the diner. Longevity noodles, or chang shou mian: This stir-fried noodle dish is supposed to help people live longer—the noodles should be eaten without biting in order to not symbolically shorten one’s lifespan.A whole fish: The Chinese words for “fish” and “abundance” are homonyms, so feasting on fish is believed to bring about more prosperity and abundance.
However, Lunar New Year isn’t all about food—it’s also a highly ritualistic celebration. People will often thoroughly clean their homes and get rid of unneeded items to cleanse themselves from the bad luck of the previous year to make room for happier times to come. Red papers that have auspicious sayings on them (think “good health,” “Happy Spring Festival,” and “more wealth year after year”) known as duilian and decorations are then put up all over the home.
The holiday also serves as a time to remember and honor family members who have passed as well as to pay tribute to Chinese gods and immortals. Before feasting on the first day of the new year, incense is lit, and respects are paid to the gods of wealth, the kitchen, and the bed. Then more incense is lit and food is offered to ancestors—families will usually have a dedicated shrine, or even a room, set up in their homes to commemorate relatives who have passed. Lastly, red envelopes (hong bao) filled with gifts of cash are given to senior members of the family as well as children.
Where to celebrate Lunar New Year
Lunar New Year is celebrated throughout much of Asia and in countries with a large Chinese diaspora. To experience it yourself, here are three cities where Lunar New Year celebrations are a huge occasion.
In this polyglot city-state where people of Chinese descent make up 75 percent of the population, Lunar New Year is a big deal. Festivities center around Singapore’s historic Chinatown where the annual Chinatown Chinese New Year Festival is held. Every year, red Chinese lanterns line the streets, along with over-the-top recreations of figures from Chinese mythology. Expect to see parades, drum shows, firecrackers, and lion dances—don’t skip indulging from the many snack carts and food vendors that will also be in attendance.
Hong Kong (as well as its neighbor Macau) celebrates Lunar New Year a little differently than in other places in China. Sure, there are the usual parades, feasts, and dances, but here, giving and receiving flowers play a big role in the festivities. Flowers aren’t simply eye candy—each type of bloom has a different meaning. Orchids are one of the most popular blooms to give during the New Year and represent beauty, luxury, abundance, and fertility. Giving someone a gladiolus wishes them luck in their career. And though it’s not a flower, bamboo is another popular present that symbolizes good fortune. The number of stalks gifted is also important—two stalks represent double the luck while five stalks are a wish for good health.
In the days leading up to and around Lunar New Year, flower markets flood the streets of Hong Kong. One of the largest is the Victoria Park Flower Market, located in the city’s Causeway Bay neighborhood, which offers more than 175 stalls to peruse.
As the oldest Chinatown in North America, San Francisco also holds the largest and oldest Lunar New celebration on the continent. Lunar New Year is not a one- or two-day affair in the Golden City—it’s a two-week-long affair filled with activities, including the Miss Chinatown pageant, a flower market fair, and the world-renowned San Francisco Chinese Parade, which attracts approximately 3 million in-person spectators and television viewers per year.
The parade, on February 4 this year, features several different floats decorated by members of the local Chinese community, including a 28-foot-long golden dragon. The parade will kick off at 5:15 p.m. at the corner of Second and Market streets and end around 8 p.m. at the intersection of Jackson and Kearny streets. For more information about the history of San Francisco’s thriving Chinese community, be sure to stop by the Chinese Historical Society of America, located in the heart of Old Chinatown.
Mae Hamilton Mae Hamilton is an assistant editor at AFAR. She covers all things related to arts, culture, and the beautiful things that make travel so special.