For those whose “new year, new me” plans for 2024 seem to be veering off course, look no further than Lunar New Year — a time to reset, recuperate, eat yummy food and bond with family. Long-standing Chinese traditions include gifting red envelopes, lighting lanterns and watching artistic lion dances. This 15-day festival originated in China over 3,000 years ago, and has since then spread to countries with large Chinese populations such as Vietnam, Korea, Singapore, and Malaysia to manifest luck and prosperity during the first new moon of the new year. Unlike the Gregorian new year, which unmistakably lands on Jan. 1, the Lunar new year falls anywhere between Jan. 20 and Feb. 21. In 2023, the holiday fell on Jan. 22, and in the year prior, on Feb. 1. This year, the Year of the Dragon, begins relatively late on Feb. 10, 2024.
This fluctuation stems from the mismatch of the lunisolar calendar — a system that uses both sun and moon patterns to quantify the year — and the current Gregorian calendar. Each lunisolar month begins with a new moon, and each year begins with the new moon closest to the halfway mark between the winter solstice and spring equinox, thus marking the end of winter and the beginning of spring.
Take this year, for example; the winter solstice took place on Dec. 21, 2023, and the subsequent new moons occurred on Jan. 11 and Feb. 9, 2024 (or Feb. 10 CST). Feb. 10, being closer to the midpoint between Dec. 21 and March 19 (spring equinox), is determined to be the beginning of Lunar New Year celebrations.
The famed 12 zodiac animals — rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog and pig — are used to pair with each lunar year. Unlike the Western astrological signs, which are derived from astronomy, the 12 zodiac animals held cultural significance and were frequent characters in East Asian mythology. Those born in different zodiac years are thought to harbor different traits, which may provide insight on personalities, careers and romantic compatibility. For instance, those born in the Year of the Dragon are believed to be especially confident, intelligent and enthusiastic. They pair well with monkey, rooster and rat zodiacs, but may conflict with ox, dog or goat zodiacs.
Despite adopting the Gregorian calendar in 1912, China and other Southeast and East Asian countries continue to use the lunisolar calendar to forecast other holiday dates such as the Mid-Autumn, Qingming and Duanwu festivals.
During this two-week celebratory period, festivities vary from day to day, with specific traditions in different countries on each of the 15 days leading up to the full moon.
The first day of Chinese New Year holds mythological significance, as it is believed this is when Nian, an ancient monster, comes out to terrorize civilians. Lighting loud firecrackers, performing lion dances and wearing red clothes are believed to scare Nian into hibernation.
A well known superstition in Chinese and Vietnamese families is that cleaning on the first day could also “throw away” good luck for the new year, so household tidying is forbidden and can only be done in the days leading up to the new moon.
On the second day, married daughters visit their parents with their husband and children, and on subsequent days, people make offerings to various gods, visit temples and dine with relatives. Special new year dishes often had symbolic meanings; for instance, Chinese families would traditionally serve steamed fish since the word “fish” (yu) sounds like the word “plentiful” in Mandarin, suggesting plentiful wealth and resources. Additionally, dumplings (mandu) and rice cake soup (tteokguk) are eaten by Korean families as a way to mark the start of a new year.
Whether or not Lunar New Year is observed in your household, this coming weekend is a great opportunity for all to practice the essential purpose of the holiday: to eat good food with family and friends, heal mentally and physically and manifest good luck for the year ahead.
A version of this article appeared on pg. 11 of the Feb. 8, 2024 print edition of the Daily Nexus.