Lunar New Year - Chinese New Year Traditions, Rituals & Customs

Photo: shutterstock / leungchopan
woman looking at chinese lanterns

The Lunar New Year is one of the more colorful holidays celebrated around the world.

The 2021 Lunar New Year falls on Friday, February 12, 2021.

What is the Lunar New Year?

The Lunar New Year is the most famous celebration in the world, celebrated as a public holiday by various Asia cultures that recognize the same start of a new year.

Lunar New Year is the same as Chinese New Year.

However, because many cultures use the Lunar Calendar and celebrate the Lunar New Year, it's become somewhat controversial to solely refer to Chinese New Year vs. Lunar new Year.

In China, the Lunar New Year is referred to as chunyun. The Lunar New Year, or Chinese New Year, may also be called the Spring Festival in China because it signifies the start of a new season.

The meaning of the Lunar New Year is also incredibly auspicious.

In January, the month that often precedes the new year, many newlyweds go get their Chinese zodiac compatibility and birth read as the start of the new year also means the start of the new zodiac year — which can bring good or bad luck at any turn.

The Lunar New Year spiritual meaning is one of luck and good fortune.

A new zodiac year is marked by one of China’s zodiac animals, and the animal for Chinese New Year 2021 is the ox.

These animals and their personality traits tell a lot about a person and their future.

How is Lunar New Year determined?

The Lunar New Year is different from the New Year practiced in the United States.

Western countries often use the Gregorian calendar; this means we base our years off of calculations based on the sun’s cycle around the Earth.

By basing our months on the sun, rather than the moon’s phases, Western calendars have 30-31 days versus the Lunar 29.

This also means that solar calendars have a very set number of days and months in each calendar year. Lunar New Year is different year to year.

The Chinese New Year is about 15 days long.

Chinese New Year lasts from the first new moon lunar phase to the first full moon, which is approximately two weeks' length of time.

That said, not only is the Lunar New Year subject to change each year, but the start of the Lunar New Year differs from country to country.

For example, the Chinese lunar calendar differs from the Thai New Year, called Songkran, will begin on April 13 and end on April 15.

The Chinese New Year is important because it's a time to honor family and ancestors.

Over 1.5 billion people celebrate the Lunar New Year.

Similar to the New Year in Western countries, Lunar New Year is a time for family and to celebrate your ancestors, your traditions, and everything that came before you.

Nearly a sixth of the world’s population celebrates the Lunar New Year, with over 1 billion Chinese citizens and Chinese communities all over the world.

Oftentimes my family and I would cook together, while China’s famous TV program CCTV’s New Year’s Gala plays in the background. (This program is similar to watching Anderson Cooper cover the Times Square Ball Drop on New Year’s Eve.)

RELATED: Which Chinese Zodiac Signs Are Lucky?

The Lunar New Year has many traditions.

Around my house, there are dumplings, rice cakes, my relatives, and more importantly, lots of red.

To ensure luck in the “new life,” there are many little traditions my family does both in preparation and the day of the new year.

1. Red decorations.

The most obvious is the red decorations — we would hang red lanterns outside our house to drive out the bad luck, as well as hang two-part idioms on red scrolls along the wall. These idioms might be a saying we want to live by for the year or something we want to come true.

2. Honoring ancestors.

We also take the time to give respect to our ancestors. A lot about Lunar New Year is about preparing for the future, but it is a time to thank your past for what it has given you.

We would often burn incense and take a moment to pray to my grandparents and everyone who has come before us. It is an incredibly comforting practice because it feels as if someone is protecting you for the coming year.

3. Reuniting with family.

Gathering all of the generations together to celebrate the holiday is so important that many Chinese people return to their native villages for the reunion dinner — even if it means flying in from across the world.

4. Feasting!

What holiday is complete without a proper feast (or feasts)? The Chinese New Year is full of delicious meals, none more significant than the highly anticipated New Year's Eve dinner (also called "weilu"), which honors family ancestors.

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Uncles, aunts, cousins, grandparents, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and more attend these savory events, where delicious dishes of nian gao cake, steamed rice pudding, long noodles, and dumplings are commonly served.

It's a little-known fact that when fish is included, the Chinese make a particular point not to finish it for superstitious reasons.

5. Putting a coin in the dumplings.

One of the common Chinese New Year traditions involves concealing a coin in one of the dumplings and distributing them among family members. Whoever discovers the coin in his or her dumpling supposedly brings good luck to themselves for the New Year.

6. Red envelopes

In addition, older family members present children with red money packets (red represents luck in the Chinese culture), decorated with gold designs and filled with "lucky money."

7. Firecrackers

Just as fireworks are a New Year's Eve staple in Western traditions, firecrackers also make an appearance at Chinese New Year celebrations. It's said that the first person to set off a firecracker at midnight receives good luck and that the loud noises that come from the firecrackers scare off evil spirits.

8. Hanging a diamond tapestry

We will hang a diamond tapestry with the Chinese character for luck on it (fu) upside down on our door.

When the luck is turned upside down, this means that it is pouring out — not in a bad way of course, but instead, it is “pouring out” onto anyone who comes in through the house.

9. Lantern Festival

The famous Chinese Lantern Festival falls on the last day of the Lunar New Year when people get together to release lanterns into the sky. These lanterns symbolize letting go of the past and are almost always red.

On the Lunar New Year, everything feels imbued with a special meaning.

We eat noodles now to ensure our long lives, we eat dumplings to hope for wealth.

The joy surrounding the holiday not only makes me thankful for my family but makes me believe in the possibility of my good luck.

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Jessica Xing is a writer who covers astrology, culture, and media.