Grab your favorite red shirt; it’s time to celebrate the Lunar New Year, also known as Spring Festival.
Saying goodbye to the Tiger, we enter the Year of the Rabbit on January 22, 2023.
Millions of families worldwide are preparing celebrations for one of the year’s biggest festivals.
If you’re a Lunar New Year newbie, here’s a quick guide to the most common traditions and superstitions associated with the occasion.
The Legend of Monster Nian
There are countless folktales attached to Lunar New Year, but the myth of “Nian” stands out as the most iconic and fun.
Legend has it Nian was a ferocious underwater beast with sharp teeth and horns. Every Lunar New Year’s Eve, it crawled onto the land and attacked a nearby village.
On one such occasion, as the villagers rushed into hiding, a mysterious old man showed up and insisted on staying in the village despite being warned of impending doom.
To the villagers’ surprise, the old man and the village survived utterly unscathed.
The man claimed to have scared Nian away by hanging red banners on the door, lighting firecrackers and wearing red clothes.
This is how wearing the fiery color – right down to undergarments – along with hanging red banners with auspicious phrases and lighting firecrackers or fireworks became Lunar New Year traditions, all of which are still followed today.
Fun aside, Lunar New Year can actually be a lot of work.
Festivities often last for 15 days – or even more – with different tasks and activities taking place over that period.
It all begins about a week ahead of 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’re sticking with Mandarin and Cantonese in this story. We have included the romanized versions of both languages in our descriptions of the various traditions.
January 15: The preparation
The week before 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 “tall.”
As a result, eating them is believed to lead to improvements and growth in the coming year. (If you haven’t prepared your own “gou” yet, here’s an easy recipe for turnip cake, a beloved Lunar New Year dish.)
But no Lunar New Year preparation would be complete without hanging red banners bearing auspicious phrases and idioms (called fai chun in Cantonese, or chunlian, in Mandarin) at home – beginning with one’s front door.
January 19: The ultimate cleanup
A big cleanup is done in homes on the 28th day of the last lunar month, which fell on January 19 this year.
The aim is to rid your home of any bad luck that’s accumulated over the past year.
Plenty of other rules and superstitions are attached to the Lunar New Year.
For instance, don’t wash or cut your hair on the first day of the new year.
Why? The Chinese character for hair is the first character in the word for prosper. Therefore washing or cutting it off is seen as washing your fortune away.
You’ll also want to avoid purchasing footwear for the entire lunar month, as the term for shoes (haai) sounds like losing and sighing in Cantonese.
Do, however, wear red. As noted above, it’s associated with luck and prosperity. (Read more Lunar New Year dos and don’ts here.)
January 21 (Lunar New Year’s Eve): The big feast
A big family reunion dinner is usually held on Lunar New Year’s Eve, which falls on January 21 this year.
The menu is carefully chosen to include dishes associated with luck, including fish (the Chinese word for it sounds like the word for “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 instance, northern Chinese tend to have dumplings and noodles, whereas southern Chinese can’t live without steamed rice.
But no matter which dishes you prefer, Lunar New Year foods are a feast of wordplay.
January 22 (Lunar New Year): Family visits
The first few days of the Lunar New Year, especially the first two days, are often a test of one’s stamina, appetite and social skills, as many people have to travel and visit immediate family, other relatives and friends.
Bags are stocked with presents and fruits for each of the elders’ and friends’ homes visited, who will shower the visitor with gifts and snacks in return after exchanging conversations over Lunar New Year treats.
Married people also have to give out red packets to those who haven’t yet tied the knot – both children and unmarried juniors.
It’s believed these red envelopes could protect children from evil spirits called xie sui. The packets are known as yasui qian/Ngaat seoi cin and intended to ward off those spirits.
January 24: Chi kou/Cek hau, or Red Mouth
Day three of the Lunar New Year (which falls on January 24 this year) is named “chi kou/cek hau,” or red mouth. It’s believed that arguments are more likely to happen on this day, so people will visit temples and avoid social interactions.
Every year, certain Chinese zodiac signs clash with the stars negatively. A temple visit is a good way to resolve those conflicts and bring peace in the coming months.
January 28: The people’s birthday
The seventh day (January 28) of the Lunar New Year is said to be the day when the Chinese mother goddess, Nuwa, created humanity. Thus, it’s called renri/jan jat (the people’s birthday).
Different communities in Asia will serve various birthday foods on that day.
For instance, people in Malaysia enjoy yeesang, or a “Prosperity Toss” of raw fish and shredded vegetables, whereas Cantonese people will eat sweet rice balls.
February 5: Lantern festival
The highlight of the whole Spring Festival happens on the 15th and final day (February 5 in 2023).
In ancient Chinese society, it was the only day when young girls were allowed to go out to admire the lanterns and meet boys. As a result, it’s also been dubbed Chinese Valentine’s Day.
Nowadays, cities worldwide still put on massive lantern displays and fairs on the festival’s final day.