Celebrating Lunar New Year!
What is Lunar New Year?
While many of us celebrate the New Year on January 1st, many Asian countries celebrate the New Year based on the lunar calendar. Because the lunar calendar is a calendar of the moon’s cycles and phases, the date of Lunar New Year changes each year and will always fall on a new moon between January 21st and February 20th. This year the New Year is on February 12, 2021 and marks the transition of the Year of the Rat (2020) to the Year of the Ox (2021). Many countries including China, Korea, Vietnam, and Tibet have their own Lunar New Year celebration and traditions. While some aspects of the holiday may be similar, specific customs and length of the holiday can vary depending on culture and region. This email provides information specific to Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival, and Korean New Year, or Seollal. We hope you and your family will enjoy learning about both celebrations and some of the similarities and differences between how each of these cultures celebrates this special holiday!
What is the Year of the Ox?
Each lunar year is associated with a zodiac animal based on Chinese astrology. There are a total of 12 zodiac animals that re-occur on a 12-year cycle. This year, 2021, marks the year of the Ox. The ox is associated with hard work and reliability. It also plays a significant role in agriculture. The Year of the Ox is said to promise success to those who work hard. Chinese New Year (Happy New Year!) Chinese New Year, also known as Spring Festival, is a 15-day celebration marking the coming of Spring and of a new year based on the Chinese Lunar calendar. It is considered one of China’s most important holidays. While only the first seven days are considered an official public holiday, celebrations can last up to 15 days. February 11-17th is considered the public holiday this year.
What is the history behind the Chinese New Year?
Chinese New Year dates back more than 3500 years and its exact beginnings are unknown. It’s believed to have first originated during the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC) when it was common to hold sacrificial ceremonies to honor gods or ancestors at the beginning and end of the year. An ancient legend portrays a monster named Niam who came once a year (on New Year’s Day). Putting up red lanterns, crackling bamboo, and wearing red (a lucky/auspicious color in Chinese culture) were thought to scare him away. Over time these traditions have evolved to spectacular decorations, firecracker celebrations, and more to celebrate the new year.
What are some traditional customs and activities?
Preparations for Spring Festival may begin well in advance of the holiday. While families typically wait until New Year’s Eve to decorate their homes, public decorations such as red lanterns or door couplets may be put up a month in advance. Similar to New Year traditions in the United States, families will stay up late to bring in the new year together on Chinese New Year’s Eve. New Year’s Eve dinner is called reunion dinner, and it is important for families to be at home together during this time. Fireworks and public celebrations to mark the New Year are common as well as giving gifts to others. One of the most popular items to gift others is red envelopes with money inside. Red is seen as a lucky color and is the main color of the festival, so it is common to see others dressed in red or other bright colors on New Year’s Day. Because it’s the start of a new year, people may buy new clothes for the occasion.
New Year’s Day is typically spent with fireworks and other celebrations as well as participating in offerings or rituals to one’s ancestors. The remainder of the week off is spent visiting relatives and friends. The final day of Spring Festival on day 15 is called the Lantern Festival. On the night of the lantern festival, people will gather to celebrate by lighting lanterns, setting off fireworks, watching lion or dragon dances, and appreciating the full moon. Trying to solve lantern riddles (riddles written on small pieces of paper and placed inside paper lanterns) is a fun activity, with some lantern owners giving small prizes to those who guess correctly.
What are some traditional foods eaten during the Chinese New Year?
Some of the traditional foods eaten during reunion dinner on New Year’s Eve include fish, dumplings, spring rolls, Niangao (a sweet rice cake), and noodles. Behind many of the foods chosen are symbolic meanings for good luck and prosperity based on the food’s pronunciation or appearance. For example, in Chinese, the word "fish" (鱼 Yú /yoo/) sounds like 'surplus' and is served as a wish for prosperity, while long noodles may symbolize a wish for longevity based on their length. Tangyuan (ball-shaped dumplings) are enjoyed on Lantern Festival, as the round shape of the balls symbolize wholeness and togetherness.
How Can You Celebrate Chinese New Year this Year?
The Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) is offering several opportunities to celebrate the New Year this month. Here are a few of their upcoming events!
Listen to Jan Stuart and Lydia Chang share about how preparing symbolic dishes that are eaten to bring good luck and fortune in the coming year is one of the most important parts of the holiday and share stories about the celebratory dishes her family has cooked for generations and the memories that preparing these dishes evokes in their online event, Luck and Fortune: Lunar New Year Food Traditions on February 10, 2021, at 6:00 pm ET.
Celebrate the Lunar New Year online on February 13, 2021, at 10:00 am ET with the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Chinese Cultural Institute, and the Embassy of the People's Republic of China in the United States. Enjoy streamed video performances and demonstrations of traditional Chinese crafts and Lunar New Year traditions as part of Lunar New Year DC.
Participate in a hands-on, artmaking preservation workshop for children ages three to eight and their caretakers on February 20th from 10:00-10:45 am. Celebrate the Lunar New Year and the Year of the Ox with the art doctors in this virtual workshop. From toys to tiles, see how artists have been inspired by oxen for generations and how Smithsonian conservators preserve these artworks. Then create your own ox masterpiece to ring in the new year.
Unable to make any of SAAM’s scheduled events? Don’t worry! The museum also has a variety of art/craft activities (like making paper prosperity lanterns or an ox paper bag puppet), new year themed coloring pages, and videos of traditional Chinese music and opera performances for viewing and download here!
Korean New Year
Korean New Year is known as Seollal and lasts three days-the day before, day of, and the day after the New Year.
What are some traditional customs or activities?
Korean New Year is a family holiday where time is spent honoring one’s elders and ancestors. It’s traditional to wear Korean hanbok during this day. Families will start New Year’s day with a ceremonial ritual called sae bae or she bae. In sae bae, one will bow deeply to the floor in order to honor their deceased ancestors or living elders. Following the bow of children to their elders, children might be given money as a small gift. Families will then spend the day feasting, playing traditional folk games such as yutnori, yeonnalligi (kite flying) for men and boys, and neoltwiggi (a Korean see saw game) for women and girls. Visiting the graves of deceased family members is also common, and there are special ceremonial rituals for honoring those who have passed on.
What are some of the traditional foods eaten during the New Year?
One of the most common Korean New Year meals includes a Korean rice cake soup. The rice cakes are round and resemble coins, representing a wish for prosperity and wealth. Their white color also brings wishes for a clean start and new beginning. Eating the soup together also symbolizes the turning of a year older. Other common foods are dumplings and jeon (Korean pancakes).
Why does everyone turn one year older on the New Year?
Did you know that age was traditionally calculated differently in Korea than in other cultures and is not always associated with one’s actual date of birth? In Korea, when babies are born, instead of considering them to be zero years old, they are immediately one year old. Birthday celebrations are typically small, with the exception of one’s first and 60th birthday, which hold great significance. Rather than adding a year to one’s age on their actual date of birth, everyone adds one year to their age on the New Year. For example, if a baby is born close to the start of the New Year, they might turn two in only their first few days of life! A common New Year’s tradition is for families to eat the traditional rice cake soup (called Duk Guk or Ddeogok), symbolizing their turning one year older together. A common joke parents tell their children is that they won’t turn a year older unless they eat their soup. Traditionally a year was added to one’s age on lunar New Year, although it is now done on the solar new year (January 1st). Still, some older generations might celebrate this on the lunar new year and the tradition of eating the soup together is still common.
One explanation behind calculating age like this is that the time spent in the mother’s womb is counted towards the reaching one year of age at birth, while others also point out that there may not have been the concept of “zero” in ancient times. Turning one year older collectively is also seen as a way the Korean culture places value on collectivity and emphasis on hierarchy and respect for one’s elders. Korea started using the Western style system for calculating age in the 1960’s, so one’s international age (based on their date of birth) is used for more official things such as various legal age limits or entrance to school, but it is still common to refer to someone by their Korean age in social settings.
How can I celebrate Korean New Year this year?
Download an interactive guide and bring the traditions of Seollal (Korean Lunar New Year) right into your own home! Celebrate the whole week with recipes, games, videos, and activities for the entire family to enjoy! Learn about the games (To-hoh), food (Tteok-guk), fashion (hanbok), and performing arts that epitomize this special time of year with this downloadable guide. Ring in the Year of the Ox with the Staten Island Museum and Korean Community Development Center! Register here!
Join in on a special holiday screening of Le Grand Chef 2: Kimchi Battle, streaming for free by the Korean Cultural Center of DC as part of their K-Cinema at Home program. In celebration of Seollal, the film will be available for viewing from February 11th at midnight to February 17th.
Check out these 10 children’s books centered around Korean New Year to help learn and celebrate this holiday’s fun history and traditions!