Lunar New Year is one of the most important celebrations of the year among East and Southeast Asian cultures, including Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean communities, among others. The New Year celebration is usually celebrated for multiple days—not just one day as in the Gregorian calendar’s New Year. In 2023, Lunar New Year begins on January 22.
China’s Lunar New Year is known as the Spring Festival or Chūnjié in Mandarin, while Koreans call it Seollal and Vietnamese refer to it as Tết.
Tied to the lunar calendar, the holiday began as a time for feasting and to honor household and heavenly deities, as well as ancestors. The New Year typically begins with the first new moon that occurs between the end of January and spans the first 15 days of the first month of the lunar calendar—until the full moon arrives.
Each year in the Lunar calendar is represented by one of 12 zodiac animals included in the cycle of 12 stations or “signs” along the apparent path of the sun through the cosmos.
The 12 zodiac animals are the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and pig. In addition to the animals, five elements of earth, water, fire, wood and metal are also mapped onto the traditional lunar calendar. Each year is associated with an animal that corresponds to an element.
The year 2023 is slated to be the year of the rabbit. The year of the rabbit last came up in 2011.
Lunar New Year Foods and Traditions
Each culture celebrates the Lunar New Year differently with various foods and traditions that symbolize prosperity, abundance and togetherness. In preparation for the Lunar New Year, houses are thoroughly cleaned to rid them of inauspicious spirits, which might have collected during the old year. Cleaning is also meant to open space for good will and good luck.
Some households hold rituals to offer food and paper icons to ancestors. Others post red paper and banners inscribed with calligraphy messages of good health and fortune in front of, and inside, homes. Elders give out envelopes containing money to children. Foods made from glutinous rice are commonly eaten, as these foods represent togetherness. Other foods symbolize prosperity, abundance and good luck.
Chinese New Year is thought to date back to the Shang Dynasty in the 14th century B.C. Under Emperor Wu of Han (140–87 B.C.), the tradition of carrying out rituals on the first day of the Chinese calendar year began.
“This holiday has ancient roots in China as an agricultural society. It was the occasion to celebrate the harvest and worship the gods and ask for good harvests in times to come," explains Yong Chen, a scholar in Asian American Studies.
Beginning in 1949, under the rule of Chinese Communist Party leader Mao Zedong, the government forbade celebration of the traditional Chinese New Year and followed the Gregorian calendar.
But by the end of the 20th century, Chinese leaders were more willing to accept the tradition. In 1996, China instituted a weeklong vacation during the holiday—now officially called Spring Festival—giving people the opportunity to travel home and to celebrate the new year.
Today, the holiday prompts major travel as hundreds of millions hit the roads or take public transportation to return home to be with family.
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Among Chinese cultures, fish is typically included as a last course of a New Year’s Eve meal for good luck. In the Chinese language, the pronunciation of “fish” is the same as that for the word “surplus” or “abundance.” Chinese New Year’s meals also feature foods like glutinous rice ball soup, moon-shaped rice cakes (New Year’s cake) and dumplings (Jiǎozi in Mandarin). Sometimes, a clean coin is tucked inside a dumpling for good luck.
The holiday concludes with the Lantern Festival, which is celebrated on the last day of New Year's festivities. Parades, dances, games and fireworks mark the finale of the holiday.
In Vietnamese celebrations of the holiday, homes are decorated with kumquat trees and flowers such as peach blossoms, chrysanthemums, orchids and red gladiolas. As in China, travel is heavy during the holiday as family members gather to mark the new year.
Families feast on five-fruit platters to honor their ancestors. Tết celebrations can also include bánh chưng, a rice cake made with mung beans, pork, and other ingredients wrapped in bamboo leaves. Snacks called mứt tết are commonly offered to guests. These sweet bites are made from dried fruits or roasted seeds mixed with sugar.
In Korea, official Lunar New Year celebrations were halted from 1910-1945. This was when the Empire of Japan annexed Korea and ruled it as a colony until the end of World War II. Celebrations of Seollal were officially revived in 1989, although many families had already begun observing the lunar holiday. North Korea began celebrating the Lunar New Year according to the lunar calendar in 2003. Before then, New Year's was officially only observed on January 1. North Koreans are also encouraged to visit statues of founder Kim Il Sung, and his son Kim Jong Il, during the holidays and provide an offering of flowers.
Among both North and South Koreans, foods like sliced rice cake soup (tteokguk) and a dish made from five different grains are prepared to mark the Lunar New Year holiday. Rather than giving money in red envelopes, as in China and Vietnam, elders give New Year's money in white and patterned envelopes.
Traditionally, families gather from all over Korea at the house of their oldest male relative to pay their respects to both ancestors and elders. Travel is less common in North Korea and families tend to mark the holiday at home.
Lunar New Year Greetings
Cultures celebrating Lunar New Year have different ways of greeting each other during the holiday. In Mandarin, a common way to wish family and close friends a happy New Year is “Xīnnián hǎo,” meaning “New Year Goodness” or “Good New Year.” Another greeting is “Xīnnián kuàilè,” meaning "Happy New Year."
Traditional greetings during Tết in Vietnam are “Chúc Mừng Năm Mới” (Happy New Year) and “Cung Chúc Tân Xuân” (gracious wishes of the new spring). For Seollal, South Koreans commonly say "Saehae bok mani badeuseyo” (May you receive lots of luck in the new year), while North Koreans say "Saehaereul chuckhahabnida” (Congratulations on the new year).
—huiying b. chan, Research and Policy Analyst on the Education Justice Research and Organizing Collaborative team at the New York University Metro Center, edited this report.
"Lunar New Year origins, customs explained," by Laura Rico, University of California, Irvine, February 19, 2015.
"Everything you need to know about Vietnamese Tết," Vietnam Insider, December 3, 2020.
"Seollal, Korean Lunar New Year," by Brendan Pickering, Asia Society.
"The Origin of Chinese New Year," by Haiwang Yuan, Western Kentucky University TopSCHOLAR, February 1, 2016.
"The Lunar New Year: Rituals and Legends," Asia for Educators.