10 Lunar New Year Facts to Help Answer Your Pressing Questions

Image: A woman and her daughter look at lanterns and decorations at a market ahead of the Chinese Lunar New Year in central Phnom Penh
A woman and her daughter look at lanterns and decorations at a market ahead of the Chinese Lunar New Year in central Phnom Penh, Cambodia, January 23, 2017.Samrang Pring / Reuters

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By Frances Kai-Hwa Wang

Lunar New Year is one of the most important festivals for millions around the world as people dedicate time and focus toward family, feasting, cleaning, gifts, games, settling debts, and hoping for good luck in the new year.

Though Lunar New Year falls this year on January 28, the holiday generally occurs in mid-January to late-February, lasts several days, and marks the beginning of spring. Called the Spring Festival, or Cun Jie, by Chinese and Taiwanese, it is also called Tet Nguyen Dan by Vietnamese, Sol by Koreans, Losar by Tibetans, and Tsagaan Sar by Mongolians.

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The holiday is not only celebrated in Asian countries like China, Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia; but also in America, England, France, Germany, Canada, Australia, etc. In fact, it has been celebrated in the United States for over 150 years, and for those in San Francisco or New York City, it will be a school holiday.

Although there are many similarities across the many cultures that celebrate Lunar New Year’s at this time of year, they are not all the same. Here are some fun facts about a few of the differences and similarities. (Let us know of others we have certainly missed!)

Not just "Chinese New Year"

Lunar New Year is celebrated by Taiwanese, Vietnamese, Koreans, Singaporeans, Malaysians, Indonesians, Filipinos, and more. And although it is often referred to as “Lunar New Year,” there are other lunar calendars. Tibetan and Mongolian New Year’s Days are sometimes celebrated at the same time as Chinese New Year, sometimes celebrated a month later.

This year, Tibetan and Mongolian New Year’s will be celebrated on February 27. Nepali, Myanmar (Burmese), Cambodian, Lao, Sri Lankan, Thai, Tamil, and Telegu New Year’s Days are celebrated in April. Hmong New Year is celebrated in November and December. The Islamic New Year occurs at different times of the (Gregorian calendar) year. The Sikh calendar is solar and begins on March 14.

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A light display is illuminated during the The Magical Lantern Festival marking the Chinese new year at Chiswick House in London, Britain January 18, 2017.Neil Hall / Reuters

Tracking the calendar

The Chinese lunar calendar is not strictly a lunar calendar; it is actually a lunisolar calendar with lunar months anchored in place by points in the solar year. Each month begins on the day of the new moon, with the 15th day falling on the day of the full moon, and lasts 29 to 30 days. An extra “leap month” is added every so often to keep the calendar from falling too far off track of the seasons. Chinese Lunar New Year’s Day is the second new moon after the winter solstice. This year, the winter solstice was December 21, 2016.

How did those ancient astronomers figure all this out?

Here come the parades

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The Chinatown New Year’s parade, which today often includes Vietnamese, Korean, Filipino, and other community groups as well, is an American invention — with beauty pageants, floats, marching bands, dignitaries in convertibles — rather than an Asian import. According to The Chinese Cultural Center in San Francisco, the first parade was held in San Francisco in 1953, hosted by the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, and it has grown and attracted thousands of spectators each year. The New Year’s parade is held about two weeks after New Year’s Day, around the time of the lantern festival, which marks the end of the New Year’s season.

Young girls try to catch confetti during Chinese New Year celebrations in New York's Chinatown district on January 26, 2009. Chinese around the world celebrated the Lunar New Year of the Ox . TIMOTHY A. CLARY / AFP/Getty Images

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A different kind of dragon

Asian dragons do not breathe fire! Asian dragons are water animals. They live in oceans, lakes, and rivers, and they bring good luck and spring rains so that farmers can begin to plant rice. (Only European dragons are malevolent and breathe fire, right?)

Dragons vs. lions

Many people often confuse dragon dancers with lion dancers because Chinese and Vietnamese lions are considered mythical creatures, fanciful, and multicolored like dragons. Both dances are usually performed by martial artists.

The easy way to tell them apart is that dragons are long and sinewy, often chasing a pearl, with many people running inside. A lion has only two people inside, a head and a tail (four legs), and performs many athletic and acrobatic feats. Both bring good luck and are not to be feared.

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Zodiac differences

The 12 zodiac animals are not the same in every culture. The animal signs form a 12-year cycle used for dating the years, helpful for keeping track of one’s age in ancient times when many people could not read. When paired with the five elements, a complete cycle is 60 years.

For Chinese, Taiwanese, and Korean cultures, the 12 animals are mouse, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig. In Vietnamese culture, the rabbit is instead a cat, and in Tibetan culture, the chicken is a bird. Myanmar has eight zodiac animals. Also, in Chinese language, the names of animals are not male or female, so this is not actually the Year of the Rooster, but merely the Year of the Chicken (which does not sound so glamorous in English).

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Lucky money

Although many cultures give lucky money (crisp new bills, always) to children in red envelopes, in Korean culture, lucky money is put in a special silk or cotton drawstring pouch which is embroidered with auspicious symbols.

This photo taken on January 19, 2017 shows Chinese people buying decorations for the upcoming Lunar New Year in Handan, in northern China's Hebei province.STR / AFP - Getty Images

Why doesn’t Japan celebrate Lunar New Year?

Japan used to celebrate Lunar New Year until the Meiji Restoration in 1873, when Japan switched from the Japanese lunisolar calendar derived from the Chinese calendar to the Gregorian (western) calendar. At that time, the Japanese mapped all the traditional lunar holidays onto the western calendar by date, regardless of how the date fell in the moon or agricultural cycle. So Oshogatsu is now celebrated on January 1 with lots of food and visiting family and friends.

However, the Lunar New Year is still celebrated in Okinawa, and there are said to be old Japanese American communities that came to America before 1873 that still celebrate the lunar new year.

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Onlookers shoot confetti into the air during the 12th Annual Chinatown Lunar New Year Parade on February 06, 2011 in New York City.Michael Nagle / Getty Images

"Gung hay fat choy"

“Gung hay fat choy” or “gong xi fa cai”? Both mean “Congratulations (on surviving the old year), hope you get rich (in the new year)” — the traditional Chinese New Year greeting. The Chinese characters are written the same, but one is the Cantonese dialect pronunciation and the other is the Mandarin.

Because the early Chinese to America in the 1800s came from the Canton region of China, China’s only international port at the time, most of the first Chinese Americans spoke Cantonese or Toisanese, so “Gung Hay Fat Choy” is more commonly known in America. However, now that Mandarin has been made the national language of China and Taiwan, and now that Chinese and Taiwanese people are immigrating from areas outside of Canton, “gong xi fa cai” is also heard.

Must-eat foods

There are many many must-eat foods, with many regional and family variations. For Chinese: a whole fish to represent plenty in the new year and/or dumplings to represent ancient silver ingots; Vietnamese: bánh chưng sticky rice cakes made with glutinous rice, mung beans, and pork wrapped and steamed in banana leaves; Korean: tteokguk rice cake soup; Japanese: ozoni soup with mochi rice cakes; Tibetan: dumplings with various surprises included in the fillings to foretell one’s future; Taiwanese: luo bo gao, daikon cakes made with glutinous rice flour.

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