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What is Lunar New Year?
The Lunar New Year celebration marks the first day of the year in a traditional lunisolar calendar and the start of spring.
Lunar New Year is celebrated across Asia, particularly in China, where it’s referred to as 春節 (Chūn Jié), meaning Spring Festival. Other places that celebrate Lunar New Year include Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea (설날 – Seollal), Mongolia (Tsagaan Sar), Indonesia (Imlek), Malaysia (Hokkein, a dialect originating from Southeastern China: Chap Goh Mei), Singapore, Vietnam (Tết) and the Philippines. And of course, the East and Southeast Asian (ESEA) diaspora celebrate the festivities globally.
Why do we call it Lunar New Year?
Each place that celebrates the festival has it’s own name for the occasion, with variations in traditions around the celebration. So simply calling it ‘Chinese New Year’ in general contributes to the erasure of all the East and Southeast Asian cultures that mark the festival and overlooks the diversity of different traditions that take place during the time.
In the spirit of inclusive language, we generally refer to the time of the year as ‘Lunar New Year’. However, it’s also important to note that saying ‘Chinese New Year’ isn’t incorrect, but is more a matter of context.
When is Lunar New Year?
The festival marks the start of the new year of the lunisolar calendar, which is based on moon cycles. This is why Lunar New Year falls on a different date on the Gregorian calendar each year. In 2024, Lunar New Year’s day is on Saturday 10 February, starting the Year of the Dragon.
There are 12 animals, each representing different attributes. Originating from China, the zodiac tale and its variations remain popular in many East and Southeast Asian places including Cambodia, Japan, South Korea, Thailand and Vietnam. The zodiac animals can vary depending on the country as well. For instance, the Ox is a Water Buffalo in the Vietnamese zodiac, and the Rooster is a Chicken.
The zodiac animals follow one another in order and are repeated every 12 years: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig.
Celebrating Lunar New Year
Different cultures have different traditional foods that are eaten around the Lunar New Year period.
A classic food for Lunar New Year, with a history of more than 1,800 years is dumplings – 餃子 (Jiǎozi in Mandarin). These are a popular food in China, in particular, Northern China. Dumplings are generally made with minced meat and finely chopped vegetables wrapped in thin and elastic dough skin. They can be cooked by boiling, steaming or frying. Most importantly, dumplings are a symbol of wealth as they are folded to look like Chinese ingots. The more dumplings you eat during Lunar New Year, the more money you’ll make in the new year!
In Hong Kong, a lot of the traditional Lunar New Year foods have an important symbolic meaning to bring in good luck for the new year. For instance, fish (魚 – yu2) in Cantonese has the same pronunciation as 餘, which means ‘surplus’ or ‘extra’, signifying plenty of prosperity. Another traditional food is 年糕 (nin4 gou1), which is a glutinous rice cake. The name directly translates to New Year cake, but also literally means ‘higher by the year’ – a great dish if you’re hoping for higher grades, a promotion or even a growth spurt!
In Vietnam, Bánh chưng is a must-have during Lunar New Year. These square cakes are made with glutinous rice, mung beans and stuffed with pork. They’re wrapped in banana leaves.
Red packets / red pockets / red envelopes… There are many names for these little red gifts! But all of these contain money. The money symbolises ‘money to anchor the year(s)’ hence it’s known as ‘lucky money’. It is tradition for elders to give them to children in hope of passing on good fortune and blessings for the year to come. Younger generations also commonly give their elders red packets as a sign of gratitude and as a blessing of longevity.
Red envelopes are also given as gifts at social and family gatherings including birthdays and weddings. This is customary for people from East and Southeast Asian countries including Cambodia, China, Korea, Myanmar, Philippines, South Korea and Vietnam.
Lanterns are often hung to celebrate Lunar New Year. The lantern festival takes place on the 15th day of the first lunar month, and it marks the end of the new year celebrations. Lantern designs and styles vary across East and Southeast Asian cultures as well.
Lion dances can be seen at many festive events from Lunar New Year to weddings, and also to mark the grand opening of a new business. The lion dance is said to bring good luck and fortune.
The lion is meticulously designed, with movable eyes and a mouth. Each lion is operated by 2 performers, one as the head and one as the body. Lion dances often involve crowd interaction where the lion may open its mouth asking for food and the crowd is given cabbage leaves to throw to the lion. The lion dance is also usually performed to a steady drum beat.
You can watch a lion dance performance and learn more about the art here: ‘Lion dancing: good wishes for the Chinese New Year’
Fireworks are set off as it is thought that the noise and lights will scare away any evil spirits. Setting off firecrackers and banging drums are also aimed at warding off bad luck and welcoming in the new year.