Moon cycles, red envelopes, and lanterns are all part of the celebration.

By Caroline Biggs
December 11, 2020
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family sitting at table eating food for lunar new year
Credit: Asia Vision / Getty Images

Also known as the Spring Festival, Lunar New Year is a 15-day celebration that typically starts in early February with the last new moon of the lunar calendar. "It's very similar to American New Year festivities, however, Lunar New Year celebrations revolve around the rotations and cycles of the lunar moon, so there is no set date for this holiday," says May Lynn Davis, founder of the Asian Pacific Cultural Association (APCA). "The holiday is celebrated throughout Asia, predominately in China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Japan, Korea, as well as many other non-Asian countries around the world."

While the significance of the centuries-old holiday can differ greatly depending on the region, Davis says that they all tend to emphasize prosperity and enlightenment. "It's said that the festivals were originated to promote and worship the Enlightenment of Buddha," she explains. "Another belief is that during the beginning of spring, farmers would hold torches in the fields to get rid of the pests or 'evil demons' and bring forth productivity, thus celebrating and welcoming good luck in new healthy crops and growth."

But there's even more to know about Lunar New Year, Davis explains.

Lunar New Year festivities begin a week before the last new moon arrives.

Although Lunar New Year lands on a different date each year, Davis says that the festivities always start with the last new moon of the lunar calendar and end with the first full moon of the lunar year. "Little Year happens the week before the Lunar New Year, it signifies the gods of the household blessing the home as a personal sanctuary," she explains. "Many rituals are performed during this week to prepare for the Spring Festival, such as cleaning the entire dwelling to rid the home of bad spirits. Families gather to feast on certain foods to nourish and reward the body with good fortune and health."

Spring Festival celebrations emphasize luck and prosperity.

During the Spring Festival, Davis says an assortment of traditions and rituals take place. "Once Lunar New Year hits, no one is to wash or clean on the first day, as it's said you are washing out the good fortunes that were bestowed upon you and the household," she explains. "Red envelopes (Hong Bao) are given as gifts to family and coworkers for good luck and prosperity; homes are decorated in red to symbolize prosperity; and family and friends unite to worship and feast on foods like dumplings, sticky rice, and candies."

There are several important symbols associated with Lunar New Year.

Davis says that certain symbols, signs, and animals are integral to some Asian cultural beliefs, especially during the Lunar New Year. "Signs of Double Happiness in red and gold are hung up everywhere to signify the next year to be full of joy, health, and wealth," she explains. "Pictures and symbols of dragons represent luck, power, and protection; bamboo, cranes, and gourds are displayed to symbolize longevity; and lanterns are hung to scare away the Nian Monster and bring good luck."

The Lunar New Year ends with the Lantern Festival.

When the first full moon of the lunar year arrives, Davis says the final Lunar New Year celebrations, known as the Lantern Festival, kick off. "The Lantern Festival is usually the last day of the Lunar New Year celebrations, and lanterns are hung and lit to represent enlightenment," she explains. "Throughout the festivities, lion dances, singing, various performances and all out partying takes place, as well as fireworks, which are said to ward off evil spirits with the sights and sounds of sparkles and bangs."

Lunar New Year is so much more than a holiday.

Above all else, Davis says it's essential to understand that the Lunar New Year is not just another holiday or festival, it's a celebration of culture and heritage. "This time of year is special for the millions and millions that celebrate, for it's a time of family, friendship, and good fortune in health, joy, and prosperity for the upcoming new year," she says. "Yes, there are many rituals and beliefs within the culture that make up its heritage, but the celebrations wouldn't be as intriguing, fun or full of camaraderie and goodwill without them."

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