Let’s start with a clarification of terms. What we call the Lunar New Year is not really based on a lunar calendar (based on cycles of the moon phase) but on the Chinese lunisolar calendar which intercalates days or months to make it conform with the moon phases. Intercalate? Yes, intercalate, as in a variable insertion or addition because a 365-day year is not divisible by the exact number of the orbital periods of the moon. Ergo, the Chinese Lunar New Year may fall on January or February. Last year, it was January 28; this year, it is February 16.
It’s a Chinese holiday then—why is it celebrated in so many parts of Asia and even the rest of the world? Two reasons—one, the Han influence which led to the adoption of the lunisolar calendar by other Asian countries and, two, the Chinese migration and the birth of Chinese communities in many parts of the world. These Chinese communities, popularly called Chinatown in almost every part of the globe, with their pervasive culture (can anyone resist Chinese food?) have, in many cases, rubbed off on the natives of their host countries.
But why 2018 is the Year of the Dog has nothing to do with the Chinese lunisolar calendar but is based on the 12-year cycle of the animal zodiac which is an entirely different story. Let’s just stick to the topic of Chinese Lunar New Year celebrations which, much like the Western New Year festivities, are steeped in traditions and superstitions. Like?
Like most of Asia, the Chinese are big on family. The New Year family traditions are many and include a reunion dinner on New Year’s Eve, a visit to pay respects to the elders on the first day and a visit by married daughters to their families on the second day.
Dragon and lion dances
The ferocious faces of the lions and the dragons, combined with the aggressive dancing and the loud beating of the drums and the clanging of cymbals, are believed to effectively drive away bad spirits.
Like the lion and dragon dances, exploding firecrackers are believed to drive away evil spirits. Unlike the ancient days however when the deafening noise sufficed, today’s Chinese New Year celebrations include spectacular fireworks displays most notable of which takes place annually in Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour.
Traditional dishes and delicacies
Ah, my favorite part of the Chinese New Year celebrations and that’s why we’re celebrating my daughter’s birthday a day ahead with a scrumptious Chinese lunch. We’ll have dumplings, noodles, smoked pork and duck, taro cakes, delicacies made with nian gao (tikoy)…
Before I get totally carried away, let me quote a Chinese New Year food tradition I found on the Internet: “Fifteen days before the New Year, every store holds the last official banquet of the year. The presiding boss may start by offering a chicken leg to an employee, who often would burst into tears, not of gratitude, but of self-pity. This is the notorious “heartless chicken”—a kiss of death, Chinese style—signaling dismissal.”
Not to be confused with the Mid-Autumn or Moon Festival, the Lantern Festival in the Chinese New Year festivities takes place on the last day, the 15th of the first lunar month when there is a full moon for the first time in the year. Legend has it that a town angered the Jade Emperor of Heaven for the death of his favorite goose and he sought to set the town ablaze. A fairy warned the townspeople and instructed them to light lanterns to make the Jade Emperor believe that he had already succeeded in his revenge. Since then, the people celebrated their good fortune by lighting lanterns on the first full moon of the year.
So, whether you’re celebrating the Chinese Lunar New Year because you’re Chinese, your country follows the Chinese lunisolar calendar or simply because you can’t resist celebrations, Kung Hei Fat Choi!
The above article is an updated version of a newspaper column I wrote in 2009.