Grab your favorite red shirt; it’s time to celebrate the Lunar New Year, also known as the Spring Festival.
Saying goodbye to the Tiger, we enter the Year of the Rabbit on January 22, 2023.
Millions of families around the world are preparing to celebrate one of the biggest festivals of the year.
If you’re a Lunar New Year newbie, here’s a quick guide to the most common traditions and superstitions associated with the occasion.
There are countless folktales associated with the Lunar New Year, but the myth of “Nian” stands out as the most iconic and fun.
Legend has it that Nian was a ferocious underwater beast with sharp teeth and horns. Every Lunar New Year’s Eve, it would crawl onto land and attack a nearby village.
On one such occasion, when the villagers ran for cover, a mysterious old man appeared and insisted on staying in the village despite being warned of impending doom.
To the surprise of the villagers, the old man and the village survived unharmed.
The man claimed to have scared Nian by hanging red banners on the door, lighting fireworks and wearing red clothes.
This is how wearing the fiery color – right down to the underwear – along with hanging red banners with auspicious phrases and lighting firecrackers or firecrackers became Lunar New Year traditions, all of which are followed to this day.
Fun aside, the Lunar New Year can really be a lot of work.
Festivities usually last for 15 days – or even longer – with different tasks and activities taking place during this period.
It all starts about a week before the new year.
Before we get started, a quick note: While there are different ways to say “Happy New Year!” depending on where you are, we will use both Mandarin and Cantonese in this story. We have included romanized versions of both languages in our descriptions of the various traditions.
In the week before the Lunar New Year, festive cakes and puddings are made on the 24th day of the last lunar month.
The word for cakes and puddings is “gao” in Mandarin or “gou” in Cantonese, which sounds the same as the word for “high”.
As a result, eating them is believed to lead to improvement and growth in the coming year. (If you haven’t made your own “gou” yet, here’s an easy recipe for turnip cake, a beloved Lunar New Year dish.)
But no preparation for the Lunar New Year would be complete without hanging red banners with auspicious phrases and expressions (called fai chun in Cantonese, or chunlian in Mandarin) at home – starting at the front door.
A great cleaning is done in the dwellings on the 28th day of the last lunar month, which fell on January 19th of this year.
The goal is to rid your home of any bad luck accumulated over the past year.
Many other rules and superstitions are associated with the Lunar New Year.
For example, do not wash or cut your hair on New Year’s Day.
Why? The Chinese character for hair is the first character in the word for prosper. Therefore, washing or cutting it is seen as washing your fortune.
You should also avoid buying shoes during the entire lunar month, as the term for shoes (haai) sounds like losing and sighing in Cantonese.
However, use red. As noted above, it is associated with luck and prosperity. (Read more Lunar New Year dos and don’ts here.)
A large family reunion dinner is usually held on Lunar New Year’s Eve, which falls on January 21 of this year.
The menu is carefully chosen to include dishes associated with luck, including fish (the Chinese word for this sounds like the word “surplus”), puddings (symbolizes advancement) and foods that look like gold ingots (like dumplings).
In China, the foods served at these classic dinners vary from north to south. For example, northern Chinese tend to eat dumplings and noodles, while southern Chinese cannot live without steamed rice.
But no matter which dishes you prefer, Lunar New Year foods are a feast of wordplay.
The first few days of the Lunar New Year, especially the first two days, are often a test of endurance, appetite and social skills, as many people have to travel and visit close relatives, other relatives and friends.
Bags are stocked with gifts and fruit for each of the homes of the elders and friends visited, who will shower the visitor with gifts and snacks in exchange for talking about Lunar New Year goodies.
Married people should also distribute red packets to those who are not yet married – both children and singles.
These red envelopes are believed to protect children from evil spirits called xie sui. The packs are known as yasui qian/Ngaat seoi cin and are intended to ward off these spirits.
The third day of the Lunar New Year (which falls on January 24th of this year) is called “chi kou/cek hau”, or red mouth. Arguments are believed to be more likely on this day, so people go to visit temples and avoid social interactions.
Every year, certain Chinese zodiac signs negatively clash with the stars. A visit to the temple is a good way to resolve these conflicts and bring peace in the coming months.
The seventh day (January 28) of the Lunar New Year is said to be the day the Chinese mother goddess, Nuwa, created mankind. Thus, it is called renri/jan jat (people’s birthday).
Different communities in Asia will serve various birthday foods on that day.
For example, people in Malaysia enjoy yeesang, or a “Prosperity Game” of raw fish and chopped vegetables, while Cantonese people eat sweet rice balls.
The highlight of the entire Spring Festival takes place on the 15th and final day (February 5, 2023).
In ancient Chinese society, it was the only day when girls could go out to admire lanterns and meet boys. As a result, it has also been dubbed the Chinese Valentine’s Day.
Nowadays, cities across the world still put on huge lantern displays and fairs on the last day of the festival.
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