As you can probably imagine, in an area as huge and diverse as Asia, there are a variety of traditions as well as several similarities. The Lunar New Year, or Spring Festival, takes place from the first day of the first month of the Lunar calendar (around late January or early February) until at least the third day.
12th February 2021 is the first day of the year. I’ve split up traditions across the countries but there are really many overlaps and common themes. 2021 is the Year of the Ox, and you can read more about the legend of the zodiac animals in my post from last week.
Update: for 2022 the New Year begins on 1st February, and will be the Year of the Tiger.
Similarities in Spring Festival Traditions across the Region
Many people prepare for the holiday by cooking special foods and cleaning their house. It is a festival which traditionally revolves around family reunion with the first day reserved for the nuclear family, and subsequent days for visits of other relatives and friends.
The colours red and gold (yellow) are considered to bring good luck across the region and you can see them everywhere in decorations and advertisements. Symbolism plays an important role in the culture and is seldom more present than at the time of the Spring Festival.
Lucky money is given to children in red envelopes, although many teens prefer to have an electronic version such as that offered by apps such as WeChat. Lucky money isn’t limited to children either: companies may also hand out red envelopes to employees, especially during the New Year party.
The red packets, known as hong bao, are also used as decoration. They can be used to make paper lanterns or even shaped like a goldfish – which are a symbol of wealth as ‘fish’ in Mandarin is a homonym for ‘surplus’.
On the run up to the Lunar New Year
This period begins one or two weeks before the actual celebration. The general atmosphere leading up to the Lunar New Year is in the bustle of shopping, decorating the home, cooking traditional food and waiting for relatives to return home. Traditionally people try to pay off their debts in advance so that they can be debt-free in the New Year. Parents buy new clothes for their children.
In the days leading up to the Lunar New Year, the streets and markets are full of people: everyone is busy buying food, clothes, and decorations for their house.
New Year Traditions in Companies
Many companies will have a party at this time, in a similar way to Christmas parties in Europe or the US. In larger companies, such parties may have an annual theme and be elaborately choreographed with each department contributing to the entertainment in some way. During these parties the boss is expected to hand out red envelopes with lucky money as bonuses for the year or as prizes for especially skilful singing or dancing.
Whilst you might never actually spend the New Year holiday with your clients, parts of these traditions may still impact your business relationships. Mainland China closes down for 2-4 weeks, depending on your industry whilst Singapore and Hong Kong only take a couple of days off. However before the Lunar New Year you might find yourself invited to company parties (so you may need to think about gifts), or to produce New Year greetings videos in the local language. If you visit shortly after the Spring festival, your visit may involve lighting lanterns to bring luck fo the coming year, or visiting a temple together.
Lunar New Year Traditions in China
Of course, many of the traditions mentioned in this post are typical for several countries with differences in languages and food. At their heart, most New Year traditions were born out of fear and myths (as is also the case in other culture’s festivals). The story goes that at the end of the year, the wild beast Nian (which is also the word for year) would appear and attack or even kill villagers. In order to scare him away, the villagers used loud noises (firecrackers) and bright lights and this is how the Lunar New Year traditions were born.
15 Day New Year Holiday
The celebrations go on for 15 days in China, and is one of the only times many people get to take a longer break.
JIE CAI CENG: Welcoming the Gods of Wealth and Prosperity
On the fifth day of the New Year, it is believed that the gods of prosperity come down from the heavens. Businesses will often participate in setting off firecrackers as they believe it will bring them prosperity and good fortune for their business.
The lion dance, or dragon dance are very popular during this festival.
On the 15th day of the New Year the end of the festival is marked with the Lantern Festival. All kinds of lanterns are lit on the streets and traditionally poems or riddles are written for entertainment.
Lighting and flying lampions are one of the traditions that I associate with starting new projects.
During the Lunar New Year many factories close down usually for a whole month or even 40 days, in order to allow their migrant workers to return home to their families. This year is a little different, as the government asked factory owners to incentivise their workers to stay home.
This mass migration of workers, known as chunyun is often described as the largest mass migration on the planet. It places huge pressure even on china’s excellent infrastructure.
Traditional Food for the Spring Festival
Food is at the heart of almost all festivals around the world and of course Chinese New Year is no exception to that! Within China there are a variety of traditions as the climate zones vary hugely, however some of the traditional foods include:
- Dumplings – especially in the north of China. I’ve seen many pictures in social media in the past days of friends preparing dumplings with their families
- Eight Treasures Rice, which contains rice, walnuts, dried fruit with various colours, raisins, sweet red bean paste, jujube dates (those are the red ones), and almonds
- “Tang Yuan” – black sesame rice ball soup; or a won ton soup
- Chicken, duck, fish and pork dishes
- “Song Gao,” literally translates to “loose cake,” which is made of rice which has been coarsely ground and then formed into a small, sweet round cake
- “Jiu Niang Tang” – sweet wine-rice soup which contains small rice balls
I’m getting hungry just thinking and writing about those!
Lunar New Year Traditions in South Korea
The official festivities for Seollal, or Lunar New Year, last for 3 days in South Korea, making this a major holiday, as elsewhere in the region. Most shops and restaurants are closed during at least part of those 3 days.
As in the other countries, it’s traditional to return home to your family home town at this time, resulting in traffic chaos in advance of New Year’s Eve.
In South Korea it’s tradition to dress in hanbok, or traditional dress on New Year’s day, and many families keep to this. Interestingly (for me at least) you can enter into many historical or cultural sights, such as the royal palaces, for free if you are wearing hanbok.
As in other parts of the region, an ancestral ceremony is traditional, although ever less families follow this tradition.
The family members and relatives gather for the ancestral rite and preparation of a process called ‘charye‘.
All the family members prepare dishes of ritual foods together and set them on the table. After the table is set, they (in the order of oldest to youngest) stand in front of the table and bow to the spirits of the ancestors first.
Family members then take turns (from the oldest to the youngest) and give a deep bow to the elderly and parents. Koreans call this bowing process ‘sebae‘.
After the bow, parents or relatives will then give the children money or ‘sebaetdon (New Year’s money)’ and words of blessing in return for the New Year.
One of the traditional customs carried out during Seollal is hanging ‘bokjumeoni‘ or lucky bags on walls or trees. Koreans believe that these beautifully embroidered pockets bring good fortune and happiness to the holder.
The main celebration feast is on New Year’s Day when Koreans eat ‘tteokguk (sliced rice cake soup)’. In Korea, eating tteokguk = a year added to one’s age. So, as a joke, Koreans say ‘the more bowls of tteokguk you eat, the older you will get!’
Other traditional foods include:
- sanjeok (meat and vegetable skewers)
- buchimgae (Korean style pancake)
- yakgwa (honey cookies)
- hangwa (traditional Korean sweets)
- injeolmi (a rice cake covered with bean flour)
Lunar New Year Traditions in Vietnam
Tet Nguyen Dan or Tet is the most important and popular holiday and festival in Vietnam. The name Tet Nguyen Dan is Vietnamese for Feast of the very First Morning.
It’s very popular to visit temples or pagodas during the holiday period to bring luck during the year ahead
Traditional New Year Foods
Mut (candied fruits) This is a snack to welcome visitors and always kept in beautiful boxes placed on the table in the living room.
Bánh chưng and bánh dầy. These are steamed cakes made of glutinous rice and filled with mung beans & pork as well as other ingredients. Bánh chưng are square to represent the earth and bánh dầy are round to represent the heavens.
Lunar New Year Traditions in Singapore
As in other countries in the region, many Singapore New Year traditions revolve around visiting relatives, playing mahjong (gambling),eating and drinking.
At the family reunion dinner, there are certain ‘must-have’ dishes which each has a symbolic meaning:
- Steamed fish 年年有魚 (余) (pinyin: nian nian you yu) = to have surpluses (of money/wealth) every year
- Dumplings resemble gold ingots = wealth and prosperity.
- Black moss vegetable with braised mushrooms (发菜 fa cai) = to prosper.
- Chicken or duck (roasted or braised): this has to be served whole with the head & feet still attached, to signify unity within the family.
- Most important, you must have a full pot of cooked rice as it means you’ll have a surplus of wealth & food to start the new year with.
In total 8 dishes as the number 8 is an auspicious number!
Perhaps most “typical” for Singapore (& also Malaysia) is yusheng, often known as lo hei. This is like a kind of salad with julienned white radish, carrots, cucumber, pomelo, red pickled ginger, crackers and either raw fish or abalone. Five-spice powder, pepper, sesame seeds and plum sauce are added and everyone gathers around the plate to toss the salad with their chopsticks while saying auspicious phrases. The higher you toss the better, as it symbolises rising fortune!
This is something which you are likely to encounter in a business context as it’s often ordered in restaurants when you eat with clients around new year. You’ve been warned about the potential for mess!
Lunar New Year Traditions in Malaysia
As elsewhere where Chinese New Year is celebrated, Malaysians clean their houses, pay off their debts and buy new clothes before the Lunar New Year.
During the holidays, fireworks (firecrackers) are often let off to frighten away evil spirits and lion dances are popular.
Together with Singapore, Malaysia is the only country with the tradition of eating yee sang, or lo hei.
As in other countries around the region, mandarin oranges play an essential symbolic role, representing good luck and prosperity. It’s a tradition for visitors to exchange a pair of mandarin oranges with the head or a senior person of the household you’re visiting during Chinese New Year.
This action of exchanging mandarin oranges is to wish the receiving party an abundance of blessings (good luck, wealth, good health, etc) for the new year.
But, why mandarin oranges you might ask? The legend has it that mandarin oranges were a highly valued fruit presented as a tribute by visitors to the imperial court. With its bright ‘yellow-orange’ coloured skin, it also looks something like gold.
And as so often in the Chinese culture, it comes down to wordplay. ‘Mandarin Orange’ is pronounced as 桔子 (ju zi) in the Chinese language.
Lunar New Year Traditions in Taiwan
Taiwan shares most of the traditions with it’s neighbours: eating dumplings and fish, paying off debt and buying new clothes.
This is one of the most visible traditions across the region. You can see couplets, or what many call red scrolls, hanging at the entrance to many homes. These scrolls are painted with wise messages or short poems that are supposed to bring good luck to the household. Every year you must remove the old ones and replace them with freshly painted new scrolls.
Mahjong & Dice
No round up of Lunar New Year traditions would be complete without mentioning mahjong and dice! Mahjong is incredibly popular in Taiwan and doubly so around the New Year. With all the family under one roof for a few days, it’s the perfect time to sit down and play some games. Whilst mahjong is definitely the go-to game for the new year, many families also like to enjoy a spot of gambling fun with dice.
As you can see from this monster long post, there are a huge number of traditions associated with the Lunar New Year. How do the Chinese, South Korean or Vietnamese cultural communities celebrate where you live?
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