Happy Lunar New Year
Today may be just another Tuesday for many of you but today celebrates another year of good fortune beginning in many Asian countries such as China, Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Singapore and many other Asian countries. These countries celebrate the Lunar New Year or Chinese New Year which is based on the phases of the moon. The first day of Lunar New Year begins when the new moon appears between January 21st and February 20th. In Asian culture, it’s the most important time of the year rooted in traditions and customs passed down through the ages. The celebration lasts for 15 days, making it the longest national public holiday, and is full of family togetherness, delicious food, and good fortune. In Asian culture, the Lunar New Year has an extensive mythos.
Today’s Lunar New Year is intertwined with happiness but according to Chinese folklore, it didn’t begin that way.
Centuries ago in China, there was an evil spirit/monster named Nian, whose name means year. He had razor-sharp teeth, giant claws, and a mean growl. Most of the time he lived in the wilderness but every Lunar New Year, the darkest night of the year when the new moon was in the sky, he would sneak into the villages to eat human and their livestock. People dreaded the Lunar New Year for many years until a wise man taught them the three things Nian was afraid of loud noises, fire, and the color red. The next time Nian came to the village, the villagers fought back. They hit their drums as loud as they could, lit every firecracker they had and wore red from head to toe. Nian ran far away and never came back. After that, the people started celebrating the new moon instead of fearing it. That celebration became a 15 day festival of family, food, and good fortune called Lunar New Year.
Every Lunar New Year is always represented by one of twelve animals and the Chinese Zodiac chosen by the Jade Emperor centuries ago.
According to legend, a long time ago in China, the Jade Emperor held a great race. The first twelve animals to reach his palace would be the winners and they would each have a year named after them in their honor. During the race, the ox was in the lead until he had to cross a rushing river. The rat was right behind him and couldn’t swim very well so the clever rat jumped on the back of the ox to ride across the river. As soon as they got to the other side of the river, the rat jumped off and scurried to the finish line to win the race. That’s why the first year in the Chinese Zodiac calendar is the Year of the Rat. Eleven other animals reach the palace to create the 12-year cycle of the Chinese Zodiac. The ox came in second place, followed by the tiger, the rabbit, the dragon, the snake, the horse, the ram, the monkey, the rooster, the dog, and lastly the pig.
It’s said that the animal your birth year is named after can shape your personality and destiny. You might be honest like the dragon or smart like the monkey. When your animal takes its turn in the Zodiac cycle, legend has it that your year will be full of surprises. This year celebrates the Year of the Pig. No matter which animal you are, everyone is excited to honor these ancient traditions even in modern Lunar New Year celebrations.
Lunar New Year brings families together all over the world. In fact, billions of people travel back to their homes and families in Asian to feast on a delicious reunion dinner of homemade food. Many of the foods like egg rolls, noodles, and shrimp mean something special. Egg rolls symbolize wealth for the coming year because they look like bars of solid gold. Chow mein noodles shouldn’t be cut because long noodles symbolize health for long life. Shrimp symbolizes happiness because the Mandarin word for “shrimp” and “smile” sounds very similar. As part of the festivities, lucky red envelopes are passed out to children as well as unmarried adults. Money is inside each envelope to bring prosperity and good fortune in the coming year. In Asian culture, red symbolizes happiness, wealth, and prosperity. In order to receive a red envelope, you must greet your elders by wishing them “Happy Lunar New Year” in your native language.
During all 15 days of the Lunar New Year, it is a time to reflect on the passing year and celebrate the future. Bright fireworks light up the sky and huge parades line the streets until the final day of the Lunar New Year celebration, the Lantern Festival. Most days during the Lunar New Year represents something different. Before the Lunar New Year, there’s a lot to do to prepare for such a big holiday. Cleaning before the Lunar New Year is very important and believed to wash away all filth and sickness. Lunar New Year’s Eve is an important day to be with family, similar to how people travel to be with their families on Thanksgiving and Christmas. At midnight, families set off fireworks to ward off evil spirits and celebrate the coming of the new year.
On the first day of the Lunar New Year, sweeping is not allowed and believed to be bad luck because you may be “sweeping away” potential good luck. The second day is “Welcoming Sons-in-Laws”, when families will visit the parents of the wife’s side of the family. On the third day, people stay home and relax with family. The fourth day is “Welcoming the Gods” when people light candles or incense to welcome good spirits. On the fifth day, people throw a big banquet to celebrate the God of Fortune’s birthday. On the sixth day, people drive away the Ghost of Poverty by throwing out ragged clothes and rubbish. The seventh day is the day of mankind, the day believed that the mother goddess created humans. It is also a national birthday, a day that everyone becomes a year older. Everyone has their own special day of when they were actually born, however, a national birthday is more symbolic. The eighth day celebrates the birthday of the crop, millet. Millet is an important crop in Asia. This day of celebration brings in the new year wishing for a bountiful year for crops. Similar to America’s Groundhog’s Day, it is believed that if this day is bright and sunny it will be a good year for crops. The ninth day is the birthday celebration of Jade Emperor, the Supreme Deity of Taoism. Big ceremonies are held at Taoist temples. Days 10-14 are more relaxed. People still enjoy the holiday with food and time with family, but there are no specific events to attend or things to do except for preparation for the fifteenth day, the Lantern Festival. The Lantern Festival marks the end of the Lunar New Year where thousands of red lanterns glow in the night to bring good fortune to all. Families walk the town with lit red lanterns where some lanterns are released with poems and riddles written in them. If you catch a lantern with a riddle and solve it, the person who wrote the riddle may give you a prize.
No matter where you live, you can join the festivities whether it’s one reunion dinner with your family or 15 days of celebrating togetherness. Lunar New Year is open to everyone. QRI encourages you to go out and celebrate other cultures that have molded America into such a diverse melting pot.
Written by: Laci Nguyen, Biologist