Malaysian temple stands against a blue night sky, with glowing red lanterns in rows on the floor and in the foreground

Anthropology: A Closer Look at Asian New Year Lunar Traditions


A dragon is lit up and carried around by dragon dancers in the night with red lanterns above the dragon's head in a Lunar New Year festival
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As the month of February comes to a close, we should recognize the ringing in of the Lunar New Year. But, of course, New Year’s seems a little late, according to the Gregorian calendar. As we follow the lunar calendar, which counts days based on the phases of the moon, you will find that for many Asian countries and the Asian diaspora, the New Year is actually in February. In general, the celebration lasts from the first new moon until the full moon. The 15-day period changes every year, and this year it started on February 1st. The year 2022 is the year of the Tiger. There are 12 animals in the zodiac system that correspond to different years and are placed in a repeating cycle of 12 years. The tiger is the 3rd in line, and the order of the animals are the Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit (or Cat in Vietnam), Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat (or Ram), Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig. 

Why not Chinese New Year?

Typically, Lunar New Year is called Chinese New Year, but it is widely observed by Vietnam, Tibet, Mongolia, Thailand, Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Philippines, Cambodia, and other countries, as well as China. It is important to call it Lunar New Year because it champions more inclusivity and prevents the erasure and removal of the unique traditions pertaining to each culture. Because each culture has its own name for the new year, using “Lunar” is an effective term to encompass several cultures while not stamping “Chinese” upon each one.  

Overview of Lunar New Year

Two children in masks and protective Covid gear hold burning incense to a golden dragon fixture in a temple
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Despite the multitude of countries that participate in the Lunar New Year, some customs span across all of them and are altered to fit in their culture. The new year often signifies a time of cleansing, blessings, and attracting good fortune, health, and prosperity. It can represent bringing family together, as this important holiday might be the one chance for people to travel and connect with their family members and elderly. 

Universal rituals include cleaning the house, saying certain greetings, red envelopes, and holding family reunions. Plenty of superstitions surround New Year’s Day to accept good luck for the coming months and discard the negative energy. Preparing the house, or spring cleaning, before the new year is vital to removing the bad fortune of the old year. Likewise, on the first day of the new year, you are not allowed to shower, in fear of “washing away” the luck and prosperity that you have just received. People try to pay off their debts before the special day to relieve themselves of financial burden for a new start. They also avoid throwing anything away on the day of, which would mean throwing away good fortune. These apply to some cultures and mainly originate from China, but each culture has its differences. 

Greetings differ among different languages.

새해 복 많이 받으세요 (saehae bok mani badeuseyo) is Korean.

Chúc mừng năm mới is for Vietnamese.

Selamat Tahun Baru is for Malay.

สุขสันต์วันปีใหม่ (suk san wan ppee mai) is for Thai.

Maligayang Bagong Taon is for Tagalog, and so on.

Along with the Mandarin name of 春节 (Chūnjié), the New Year is referred to as Tết in Vietnamese, 설날 (Seollal) in Korean, and Tsagaan Sar in Mongolian.  

Thousands of people take trips to temples, participate in prayers and ceremonies, burn incense, and uplift their respects to their ancestors, as they are an essential part of many East and South Asian cultures. Families make sacrifices to their ancestors, where offerings laid upon the altar or the person’s grave consist of flowers, fruit or food, and tea. An extra glass is left on the table for the deceased to “let them drink”, symbolically transcending death when collecting family together. Children often bow down to their grandparents in order to earn the famous red envelopes (or decorative envelopes) of money, again indicating their reverence for the elderly. Filipino people call these envelopes “Ang Pao”, Vietnamese call them “Li xi”, and Chinese say “Hónɡ bāo”. 

Lunar New Year Foods

A red tablecloth covered in traditional Lunar New Year Chinese food, with oranges in the middle
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Traditional food is a fundamental part of the celebration because not only do families gather around a new year’s feast, but the foods usually contain symbolic meanings that are meant to ensure blessings for the person that eats it.  


Chung cake, a sticky rice cake covered in a bamboo leaf are a New Years’ staple for Vietnamese people. Pickled onions are especially beneficial because of the superstition that you shouldn’t cook any new food for the first three days. Therefore, anything pickled won’t go stale. Banh Chung is a signifier of the earth because of its square shape, due to the once-held belief that the earth was square. Eating the food conveys giving thanks to one’s ancestors. Banh tet is a similar dish except it is shaped like a bean and can have savory or sweet fillings. Vietnamese also enjoy eating Thit Kho Trung, which is a braised pork and egg in a coconut juice dish. 


 In Singapore, snacks such as kueh kapi, or crispy cookie “love letters” are shared and doled out to friends and family. Malaysians can be found going to Pasar Malam, or night markets, for Chinese food. Bakwah, or a sweetened type of “beef jerky”, is served traditionally in both Singapore and Malaysia. Yee sang, a salad dish that denotes prosperity, is found commonly on Malaysian dinner tables. Because of the high Chinese population residing in Singapore combined with the multiethnic citizenry, their culturally notable foods have similarities with China. In addition, Taiwanese night markets are known for selling stinky tofu, but another Taiwan classic is Nian Gao, or dumplings. Both Taiwanese and Indonesians consider pineapple cakes to be a badge of the New Year. 


For Koreans, tteokguk, a rice cake soup, is prepared for the new year for its distinctive coin shape, which carries the omen of becoming rich. The stretching of the rice-based dough charges the food with longevity, while the white color is ancestrally suggestive of rebirth and becoming pure. It is said that one grows another year if they eat the soup. This inspired the phrase of “How many bowls did you eat?” to ask someone’s age on New Year’s Day. Other Korean variations of this dish include manduguk (dumpling soup) or ddukmandu (both dumplings and rice cake in soup). Banchan (side dishes), include saengsun jjeon (fried fish fritters), japchae (glass noodle), and galbi jjim (beef short rib). 


Chinese people have a plethora of feasting foods to look forward to during the New Year holiday season. Many of the foods traditionally eaten are distinguished by the puns in their names or their closeness to material objects. Fish means one will accumulate wealth over the coming year because it sounds like “surplus” in Chinese. Similarly, Niángāo, a type of rice cake, sounds like “getting higher year by year”, so it corresponds to gaining affluence. Dumplings are historically paradigmatic of good luck because of the striking shape of a silver ingot, thus sparking the legend that you will become richer the more dumplings you eat. Spring rolls have the same connotation due to their resemblance to gold bars. Tāngyuán, or sticky balls made of rice, have connections to family and a tight-knit quality of community. Another dish popular in other countries for the same meaning is long noodles, which is illustrative of having a long life. An influential fruit for the new year is the tangerine or orange for its gold-like hue and its phonetic likeness to the Chinese word for “success”. Oranges are customary to bring to one’s grandparents or the head of the household as a gift of honor. 

Classical Dress for Lunar New Year

Four women wearing hanbok in different colors are shown with their hands on their hips posing in front of a dark background
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To commemorate the new year, wearing traditional cultural dress is important for paying respects. For the biggest holiday of the year, one can’t wear their regular everyday clothes. Koreans dress up in hanbok, which is a colorful set of a short jacket and dress. This is worn to perform se bae, a form of bowing to one’s elders to receive Sebaet Don, or New Year’s money.  Vietnamese wear ao dai, which is a long tunic dress with slits on the side worn over trousers and literally translates to long shirt. Chinese wear cheongsam (Cantonese) or qipao (Mandarin), which is a tight high-neck dress. Though not exactly related, Filipino people wear polka dots, as the round shape is believed to draw in riches and good luck. 

Games for Lunar New Year

A game of mahjong with a bunch of tiles spilled out over the green board
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The Lunar New Year is for having fun and socializing, and each culture has its own recreational activities passed down by generations. Koreans play a traditional board game called Yut Nori, using sticks as dice. Some boys fly rectangular kites called yeonnalligi, where they cut the kite string around sunset in order to “cut away” the ties of the past and let bad fortune fly away. In Vietnam, childhood folk games are played. Players use their Li Xi money in Danh Dao, where they gamble by throwing coins into holes in the ground and attempting to win their competitors’ cash. Competitions such as cockfighting, tug of war, wrestling matches, and a swinging game called Danh du are played to generate positive spirits of the holiday.

Chinese New Year

A night sky is filled with yellow lanterns floating with people lifting them off into the air
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Chinese New Year celebrations are the most famous among the cultures that participate. It is usually characterized in popular culture, with bombastic parades of floats, lion dances, and dragon dances. Chūnjié can be referred to as the Spring Festival. Spring Festival in China calls for a week long holiday that is accompanied by Chunyun, or a migration period. This is the most populated migration in the world, as nearly everyone in China books flights or trains to travel home and visit their extended family. Common decorations hung up on houses or on the city streets are red lanterns and red couplets, Chinese calligraphy works on red paper declaring one’s wishes. Red is regarded to be the “it” color of Lunar New Year because of its emblematic properties of good luck and warding off evil. Setting off firecrackers and fireworks, whether in your neighborhood or grandiose displays, is said to scare off demonic spirits because of its noise.

Lion dances and dragon dances that are performed in Chinatowns are meant to bring good fortune. The lion costume is carried by a person controlling the head, and their partner controlling the body. The dragon costume is mobilized by a line of dancers holding poles. For the Chinese, certain days are acknowledged to have specific meanings and superstitions: the first day is for the elders and visiting family, the second day is seen as a feast day and a “bonus” for employees, and the third day is for resting, as leaving the house would expose you to the bad spirits that wander outside. 

Lantern Festival

The Chinese attend Lantern Festivals on the 15th day of the month to finally end the party. Stemming from the Han Dynasty, sending off lanterns was a sign of saying goodbye to the previous year, and the light gave off feelings of hope. To entertain the crowd, lanterns can have riddles written inside of them; its famous wielding of wordplay and ambiguity in interpretation are devised to make the riddles complex and interesting. In modern times, lanterns are creatively engineered to recreate Chinese mythological storylines through their artistic shapes of animals, plants, and palaces. In the old days, it used to stand in as an unofficial version of Valentine’s Day and a venue for matchmaking, since it is maintained that young adults will find their true loves at the lantern festivities. During that time, lantern viewings were one of the rare events where men and women who normally were under curfew could go out freely. 


Japan holds a weighty presence in global pop culture yet does not deliver on the Lunar New Year. Due to their Chinese influences, they used to follow the lunar calendar and celebrate along with their neighboring Asian countries. Lunar time was recognized nationally from the 6th century until 1873, the start of the Meiji Restoration. Though Oshougatsu is the most valued holiday of the year, Japan adopted the Gregorian calendar on orders of the Japanese government, which aimed to become more Westernized. On the contrary, China and other nations such as Singapore, Malaysia, etc use both the solar and lunar calendars to conduct daily life and holiday systems. Despite this monumental change, hints of the cultural Lunar New Year can be spotted everywhere in Japan, like public festivals, the use of the Chinese zodiac wheel, and superstitions. 


A Vietnamese family at a house where children dressed in red formal wear are performing for their grandmother and mother, who are making food
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Lunar New Year is a massive holiday for Asians all over the world and holds a rich, never-ending culture and heavy superstition behind each food, garment, custom, and greeting. Accepting how everyone cherishes this period differently is crucial to understanding the Asian diaspora. The universal theme of the new year is the spread of happiness and optimistic energy and inviting in prosperity and fortune. However, the central axis on which the celebration revolves around is family, which is a core value we should all remember this year. 


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