The History of Lunar New Year

Chinese New Year celebrations were born out of fear and myth. The legend of the man-devouring predator beast Nian (which is also the word for “year”) told of its frightening appearance at the end of each year, attacking and killing villagers. Loud noises, bright lights, and the color red were used to scare the beast away, and the Chinese New Year celebrations apparently evolved from that. Today, the 15-day New Year festivities are celebrated in China, Vietnam, Korea, Mongolia, and where these communities reside all over the world.

The Chinese Lunar New Year is the longest chronological record in history, dating from 2600 B.C., when the Emperor Huang Ti introduced the first cycle of the zodiac. The Chinese lunar calendar starts the lunar year based on the cycles of the moon. Therefore, because of this cyclical dating, the beginning of the year can fall anywhere between late January and the middle of February. This year it falls on February 3, 2011 — the Year of the Rabbit.

Celebrated internationally, Lunar New Year is considered to be a major holiday. Families and friends reunite to ring in the new Lunar New Year with well-wishing, ritual, great feasts, and exuberant activities.

Did You Know?

  • Today, Japanese celebrate New Year’s Day on January 1 each year according to the Gregorian calendar. But before 1873, the date of the Japanese New Year was based on the Chinese lunar calendar, just as the contemporary Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese New Years are celebrated to this day.
  • The use of knives or cleavers in preparing meals during the Lunar New Year are considered unlucky as this could sever the entire family’s good fortune. Hence, fish, pigs, and duck are often roasted whole for the festivities.
  • Custom dictates that most families begin the first day of Chinese New Year with a vegetarian meal to counteract the effects of the excessive feasting on New Year’s Eve. The choice of vegetables may include exotic types of mushrooms, bamboo shoots and bean sprouts. The meat-free meal is also considered fortuitous for garnering good karma by refraining from eating anything that has been killed.
  • The Western-style Gregorian calendar arrived in China along with Jesuit missionaries in 1582. It began to be used by the general population by 1912, and New Year’s Day was officially recognized as occurring on January 1. But at the end of the 20th century, Chinese leaders were more willing to accept the Chinese tradition. In 1996, China instituted a week-long vacation during the holiday–now called Spring Festival–giving people the opportunity to travel home and to celebrate the new year.
  • The seventh day of the New Year is known as “Everybody’s Birthday” — a day for all to celebrate not only a new year and opportunities, but where all people are one year older. Those who aspire to receive specific blessings — such as acquiring a new job — would dine on symbolic dishes to invite that blessing in.
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