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February 26, 2024
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Happy Lunar New Year: A guide to the Year of the Wood Dragon

Pedestrians walk through Downtown Boston’s Chinatown. Photo from The Mass Media Archives.

As the clock counted down to Feb. 10, billions of people across the world welcomed the start of a new lunar year, kick-starting festivities.

This year’s Lunar New Year marks the highly-awaited Year of the Wood Dragon, the first since 1964. (1) A symbol of power and opulence, this Year of the Wood Dragon means it is predicted to be an excellent one for the people celebrating it.

Unlike the Gregorian calendar, which is derived from a solar-year system of 365 days, the lunar calendar is based on the approximately 29-day moon phase cycle, culminating in about 354 days in a lunar year. The fluctuating phase cycles are what result in the date of the lunar new year shifting each year.

Falling on the second new moon following the winter solstice, Lunar New Year typically transpires during the end of January or the beginning of February. (1)

Though commonly labeled as only Chinese New Year in some forms of American media, Lunar New Year is a special occasion celebrated by many East and Southeast Asian cultures. Depending on the country, both its name and how it is celebrated can differ vastly, with different traditions performed and foods shared to ring in a lucky year.

Known as Chūnjié, or the Spring Festival, in Chinese culture, the Chinese New Year begins on the new moon and ends on the first full moon of the lunar calendar. On the full moon, the Lantern Festival marks the end of the 15-day holiday, with grandiose parades, elaborate games and brilliant fireworks providing the perfect finale to the festivities. (2)

As a lucky color in China, red can be seen in the red lanterns and other paper decorations that embellish Chinese communities—like Boston’s Chinatown—during the Lunar New Year. In these communities, lion and dragon dances are also popular forms of entertainment, the bright coloring of the costumes and spirited dances making them one of the most recognizable elements of Chūnjié.

During Chūnjié, there are specific Chinese dishes served to symbolize the year’s upcoming luck.

Fish is a common dish found at the Chinese dinner table, due to being a homophone of the word “surplus” in Mandarin. Tangerines are also a staple for this reason, having a similar pronunciation to “gold” in Cantonese. (1)

With other traditional meals like moon-shaped rice cakes and glutinous rice ball soup, families make a wide selection of food with which to celebrate each day of the new year. (2) As one of the most important festivals in Chinese culture, feasting and enjoying all that Chūnjié has to offer is the only way to properly celebrate.

Tết Nguyên Đán, or Tết, is the week-long celebration of the lunar new year in Vietnamese culture. During this celebration, kumquat trees, peach blossoms and chrysanthemums can be seen within houses and temples, ushering in luck and other desired hopes for the upcoming year. (2)

On the first day of the new year, it is customary for Buddhist families to visit their local temples or pagodas for worship. Then in the night, they come together in the house to celebrate.

Tết is the time for families to feast on five-fruit platters and seasonal food dedicated to the Lunar New Year such as bánh chưng and bánh tét—Vietnamese sticky rice cakes made with mung beans and pork. (3) With prayers and a feast of delicious Vietnamese delicacies, it is a celebration to look forward to each year.

In Korean culture, Seollal is the three-day holiday celebrated by families around the start of the new year. During Seollal, some may elect to celebrate in the traditional attire of hanbok and to play traditional games with friends. (1) Typically, families will gather at the home of their oldest male relative to honor their ancestors and elders. (2)

Similarly to bánh chưng and bánh tét in Vietnam, Korean families have their own traditional dish associated with Lunar New Year. Sliced rice cake soup called tteokguk is prepared as a special dish for the holiday; its broth and coin-like sticky rice cakes are intended to symbolize success and prosperity in the new year. (1)

While the celebration of Seollal may be shorter and less extravagant than its counterparts, the emphasis on familial connection, feasting and paying homage to ancestors are all major aspects shared across cultures.

While all three cultures have their differences in how they celebrate Lunar New Year, there is one assured commonality between them. During the festivities, adults and elders traditionally give children or those younger than them “lucky money” within envelopes as a gift to wish good fortune.

In China and Vietnam, money is given in red envelopes, referred to as hongbao in Mandarin, lai see in Cantonese, and lì xì in Vietnamese. In Korea, new year money commonly referred to as sebaet don is given in white and patterned envelopes. (2)

As people continue to welcome the Year of the Wood Dragon this week, let this be an opportunity to wish a very happy Lunar Year to all who celebrate.


[1] https://time.com/6248736/lunar-new-year-celebrations/

[2] https://www.history.com/topics/holidays/chinese-new-year