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8 Things You Should Know About Lunar New Year Traditions

By Rebecca Ngu | February 5, 2016 11:42am | Updated on January 27, 2017 10:26am
 Lion dancers will make their way through the streets of several Lunar New Year celebrations to celebrate the Year of the Rooster.
Lion dancers will make their way through the streets of several Lunar New Year celebrations to celebrate the Year of the Rooster.
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East Midtown Partnership

Saturday, Jan. 28 will mark the Lunar New Year — the first day of the Chinese lunisolar calendar and the beginning of a 15-day celebration of a new beginning. 

The Lunar New Year, also called Spring Festival, has become increasingly mainstream, particularly with the city’s addition of the holiday to the public school calendar last year. Despite increasing visibility of the holiday, the significance of the ancient rituals connected with the holiday remains largely misunderstood.

RELATED: Celebrate the Year of the Rooster in NYC This Lunar New Year

DNAinfo New York talked to Joanna C. Lee and Ken Smith, authors of the Pocket Chinese Almanac, who have published a Chinese almanac every year since 2010, to learn more about the 5,000-year-old holiday.

1. Goodbye, Year of the Fire Monkey — Hello, Year of the Fire Rooster!

The Chinese zodiac is a centuries-old system that organizes time in 12-year cycles. Each year is represented by one of 12 zodiac signs paired with one of five elements (metal, water, wood, fire and earth). The sign of your birth year supposedly determines your personality and destiny. This past year belonged to the "fire monkey" — known to be "ambitious and adventurous, but irritable."

We are transitioning into the year of the "fire rooster." Babies born during this year are supposed to be trustworthy with a "strong sense of timekeeping and responsibility at work."

2. The Lunar New Year is not a Chinese equivalent to Jan. 1 New Year’s celebrations. It is a holiday governed by a cyclical worldview.

Unlike the Judeo-Christian understanding of time as a linear series of causes-and-effects, the Chinese conception of time is more cyclical, Smith said. From this perspective, the wheel of life turns irrespective of an individual's actions, which diminishes their sense of control. The idea of setting goal-oriented New Year's resolutions is foreign to Chinese thinking, Smith said.

Instead, the Chinese rely on rituals and superstitions that appeal to a higher order to bring fortune. The New Year is governed by rituals, such as the cleaning of the house or wearing all new clothes on the first day, that aim to bring luck from higher powers.

“The Chinese are one of the most superstitious people on the earth,” Smith said.

"But not the only ones!" Lee quipped. 

3. The New Year is preceded by days of cleaning, cooking, shopping and settling old debts.

Traditional Chinese will often thoroughly clean the house to remove the past year’s misfortune and make room for new luck.

"The two really important days of ritual cleaning ... are this weekend ... Feb. 6 and 7," Lee said.

As with any holiday, people shop frantically beforehand, buying flowers, decorations, clothes, sweets, fruits, and more. Any old debts owed between individuals or businesses are expected to be settled before the new year begins. “It is very bad luck to owe people money [going into a Lunar New Year],” Lee said. 

4. Lunar New Year celebrations in China spur the largest annual human migration in the world.

The Lunar New Year resembles Thanksgiving in its emphasis on family reunion. The “reunion dinner,” which takes place the night of Lunar New Year’s Eve, is considered the most important meal of the year.

“The whole family is together during the transition from the last meal of the old year to the first meal of the new year,” Lee said, emphasizing the importance of visiting elders as well. 

Family togetherness is so imperative at this time of year, that the Spring Festival Travel Rush (as it's also known) or Chunyun, spurs the largest human migration in the world, with an estimated 320 million Chinese residents overloading the Chinese transit system in attempt to get home. 

5. Many foods that reference good fortune are served whole.

Food is central to the Lunar New Year, bringing family together for tradition and good eats.

“Among all the foods, you have to serve food that is complete,” Ken said. “If you serve chicken, you must have the head. If you have fish, you must have the tail.”

Wholeness in food symbolizes wholeness in family and life.

Foods that are symbolic of auspicious ideas are favored. Fish is considered essential, as the Chinese word for “fish” () sounds like the word for “abundance.” But don’t flip over the fish — doing so signals a boat capsizing, a prospect feared by Chinese fishermen. The vegetable fa cai — a stringy, black vegetable that soaks in flavor — is a popular dish that sounds like “to become rich” in Chinese, and thus symbolizes wealth. Nian gao — a sweet glutinous rice cake — is a traditional Lunar New Year dessert because its name is a homonym for “higher year,” signaling growth in the new year.

If you get mandarin oranges, try to get ones with their stems attached.

“The stem is important,” Ken said. “It represents that it was connected to things beyond it,” such as family.

6. An ancient origin tale inspired the tradition of lighting red lanterns and setting off a barrage of firecrackers at midnight.

The tradition of setting off firecrackers — in fact, the whole Lunar New Year celebration — is said to be rooted in an ancient legend of a mythical monster called Nian. On the eve of the New Year, this beast emerged to destroy houses and attack villagers. An old man eventually showed the villagers, however, that the Nian was scared of the color red and of loud noises, hence the now centuries-old tradition of lighting firecrackers and decking houses in red. The word for new year in Chinese is guo nian, translating roughly to "pass the year."

7. Traditional Chinese households curry favor with their Kitchen God before the New Year so that he will give a favorable report back to the Jade Emperor in Heaven.

Many traditional Chinese households have a paper effigy or plaque of the Kitchen God, who is charged with watching over the family and files a report to the Jade Emperor every New Year. He is meant to be a moral force making the family accountable to heavenly eyes. Before the New Year, some families will offer the deity sweets or nian gao to curry his favor or seal his lips with the sticky honey.

“It’s basically a history of bribery in the family in China,” Smith said.

8. Be on good behavior: you can curse yourself just as easily as you can bring good luck.

Sweeping the floor on Lunar New Year is taboo as you are sweeping away all the good fortune of the new year. Avoid all sharp objects, such as knives or scissors, as they symbolize cutting ties. That's why all cooking is traditionally done before New Year’s Day, so that all knives can be stowed away beforehand. General bad behavior is frowned upon.

“Always think positive thoughts, think of good things to say to everyone around you, do not swear, do not blame,” Lee said. “Nothing negative.”