Lunar New Year

Lunar New Year

Learn a little about the festivities, food, calendars, and colors of the Lunar New Year.

Grades

3 - 12

Subjects

Social Studies, World History

Lunar New Year, often called the Spring Festival or Chinese New Year, is the most important holiday in China and Chinese communities around the world.

How do you wish someone "happy new year" in Chinese? It depends on who you're talking to. In China, the official language is Mandarin. Gong xi fa cai is how Mandarin-speakers wish you a happy new year—literally "wishing you to be prosperous in the coming year." Many overseas Chinese communities speak Cantonese. Gung hay fat choy is how Cantonese speakers wish you a happy new year—literally "wishing you great happiness and prosperity."

The two-week celebration includes family and friends, feasting and fireworks, parties and parades.

For more than 3,000 years, Chinese New Year was just what it sounds like—the beginning of a new year in the Chinese calendar. The historic Chinese calendar is a lunisolar calendar, meaning dates are determined by both the moon (lunar) and the sun (solar). Months begin with every new moon, when the moon is not visible in the night sky. The new year starts on the new moon nearest the midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, sometime between January 21 and February 20.

China officially adopted the Gregorian calendar, used by the West, in 1912. In the late 20th century, however, the holiday was re-introduced as the “Spring Festival.”

Although there is rarely a set “program” for Lunar New Year celebrations, some days are associated with specific rituals or festivities. Read through some highlights below. Use the questions in the Questions tab to understand the significance of some of the sumptuous foods associated with the Lunar New Year.

Before New Year


Prior to the official start of the holiday, Chinese households are thoroughly cleaned. Cleaning symbolizes ridding the household of the previous year’s bad luck and making the home welcoming to good luck in the coming year. (On the first several days of the festivaltradition holds that brooms be stored, so that the newly arrived good luck will not be swept away.)

The days or weeks leading up to Chinese New Year are also when communities begin to decorate with red: fresh red paint on the doors of businesses and homes, red paper cut-out decorations, red lanterns. Red is the color of joy and good fortune in Chinese cultures, and is most strongly associated with new year celebrations.

One of the traditional ways to begin celebrating the Lunar New Year is the “reunion dinner,” when families gather to celebrate hopes for the new year.

During the New Year Celebrations


Some of the most common celebrations during the Lunar new year festival include parties, firecrackers, and the famous lion dance familiar to Western audiences. During the first days of the Lunar New Year younger family members may begin receiving bright red envelopes full of money. These envelopes, known as hong bao (Mandarin)or lai see (Cantonese), are traditionally given to unmarried adults and children.

The third day of the Lunar New Year is often quieter and more somber than those preceding it. It is considered bad luck to visit friends or family, or play host to visitors yourself. This day is usually reserved for honoring deceased relatives by visiting graves or lighting incense or paper offerings in memory of loved ones.

Often times the seventh day of the Lunar New Year recognizes renri, the creation-day of human beings. To honor humanity’s connection to all living things.

The ninth day of Chinese New Year is recognized as the birthday of the Jade Emperor, the ruler of heaven in Taoist belief.


The beautiful Lantern Festival signals a close to the Lunar New Year festival. Paper lanterns light the way for lion dances and all-day parades and festivals. The bright lights of the Lantern Festival celebrate the first full moon after the Lunar New Year. The colorful lanterns, displayed outdoors as well as inside temples, are associated with guiding lost souls’ home and were originally created by monks to honor Buddha.

Questions

1) Why do you think dumplings are an important part of Chinese New Year feasts?


Dumplings are a popular Chinese food year-round! But two types of dumplings are especially associated with Chinese New Year.

a. Jau gok are the half-moon-shaped dumplings most associated with Chinese New Year in Cantonese-speaking regions of China and Chinese communities. The crimped, tapering shape of the edges of jau gok are similar to the shape of ancient Chinese gold ingots. These ingots, called yuanbao, were used as currency in China for more than 1,000 years.

b. Tang yuan are often eaten during the Lantern Festival that marks the final days of Chinese New Year. These ball-shaped dumplings are similar to the shape of the full moon, which rises on the final day of the holiday.

2) What is nian gao, and why is it a part of Chinese New Year?

a. Nian gao is a sweet, sticky rice cake simply called “new year cake” in many Mandarin-speaking regions of China and Chinese communities. Nian gao is a homonym for “higher year.” Tradition holds that eating nian gao encourages the consumer to lift oneself up to a higher income, higher professional position, higher education, or higher self-worth with the coming year.

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Writer
National Geographic Society
Editors
Irene Yung, National Geographic Society
Melissa MacPhee, National Geographic Society
Producer
National Geographic Society
other
Last Updated

May 20, 2022

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