SUNDAY, JANUARY 22, 2023—Millions of Chinese families around the world are welcoming the Year of the Rabbit in what is the most widely celebrated Chinese holiday of the year. The movement of millions of people to gather for this holiday is sometimes described as one of the greatest annual human migrations on planet Earth. But the animal most non-Chinese observers are likely to see in holiday photos and videos is the lion, specifically the enormous, colorful costumes prepared for annual lion dances at community festivals. Also dominating images of this two-week festival is the color red, which is considered auspicious and homophonous with the Chinese word for “prosperous.”
WHAT’S IN A NAME? Official style guides for journalists allow references to “Chinese New Year” as well as “Lunar New Year” or “Spring Festival,” however, there is widespread public discussion about the fact that this festival is celebrated across many Asian countries and in Asian communities around the world. The phrase “Lunar New Year” seems to be emerging as the preferred reference.
WHY IS IT A ‘SPRING’ FESTIVAL? The celebration traditionally marks warmer weather—or at least the hope that warmer weather is coming.
The festival mainly is known as a time for gatherings among family and friends—much like Americans expect to “come home” for Thanksgiving and Christmas. When the New Year approaches, it is customarily ushered in with a Reunion Dinner that is replete with symbolic foods. For two weeks, visits are made and hosted with family and friends, gifts are exchanged and merriment is par for the course.
EARTHLY BRANCHES & THE ZODIAC
Legend has it that when the Buddha (or the Jade Emperor) invited animals to a New Year’s celebration, only 12 showed up; these 12 animals were each rewarded with a year. Earthly Branches were the original terms used for the years, but animals were later added as mnemonics and categorized as either yin or yang. Ten Celestial Stems pair with the Earthly Branches for a 60-year calendrical cycle. This year is the year of the Earth element and the 12th Zodiac animal, the pig.
Tradition has it that a person’s birth year indicates that he or she will possess the characteristics of the animal in reign during that year. (Just be careful! The year of someone’s Zodiac animal isn’t exactly considered lucky, and wearing red every day for that year is considered a means of protection from evil spirits and bad fortune.)
A 15-DAY FESTIVAL:
DINNERS, RED ENVELOPES & LANTERNS
Unrivaled among Chinese holidays, the New Year begins weeks in advance with families cleaning and hanging paper cutouts in their homes, shopping for fish, meats and other specialty foods, and purchasing new clothing. Businesses pay off debts, gifts are distributed to business associates and everything is completed according to symbolism—for good luck, prosperity and health in the coming year. In Buddhist and Taoist households, home altars and statues are cleaned.
On the eve of the New Year, a Reunion Dinner is shared with extended family members. Dumplings, meat dishes, fish and an assortment of hot and cold dishes are considered essential for the table. Traditionally, red envelopes filled with money or chocolate coins are given to children. Following dinner, some families visit a local temple.
For the next two weeks, feasts will be shared with family and friends, fireworks will fill the skies and parades with dragons and costumes will fill the streets. Friends and relatives frequently bring a Tray of Togetherness to the households they visit, as a token of thanks to the host. Through the New Year festivities, elders are honored and deities are paid homage, with all festivities being wrapped up with the Lantern Festival.
HOMEMADE CHINESE DINNER
If carryout isn’t your idea of an authentic Chinese experience, check out these sites for delicious New Year recipes:
- Cook up an assortment of mouth-watering dishes with recipes courtesy of Food Network.
- For a UK take on Chinese fare, visit the BBC for New Year’s recipes.
- Try favorite Chinese recipes at Food & Wine.
- For Chinese-food recipes with reviews to boot, check out AllRecipes.
- Fresh for 2023, The New York Times offers recipes for Easy, Festive Dishes.