Most of you are probably already familiar with Chinese New Year. It’s a widely celebrated holiday around the world, and unlike the regular new year, Chinese New Year doesn’t have a fixed date but instead happens on the first new moon of the first lunar month, which is usually between January 21 to February 20.
In China, this holiday is commonly referred to as the Spring Festival, and it originated from the folk belief that a beast called Nián (年) would descend from the mountain at the end of every year to devour villagers, so the villagers used loud noises and firecrackers to ward it off. In modern-day China, Chinese New Year is a 15-day celebration, where each day is reserved for a specific practice. For example, Jie Cai Ceng happens on the fifth day of the New Year, and it’s dedicated to welcoming the Gods of Wealth and Prosperity, so businessmen would often set off firecrackers in their storefronts in a hope of ushering good fortune to their businesses. Yuánxiāo jié or the Lantern Festival, on the other hand, marks the end of Chinese New Year, and people celebrate by decorating their houses with lanterns and eating peanut balls.
On the days leading up to the New Year, people would clean their homes, hang up red decorations, and pay respect to their ancestors by giving offerings. During New Year’s Eve, family members would gather together for a feast, and the dishes served here are usually fish to increase prosperity, dumplings and spring rolls for wealth, whole steamed chicken to symbolize completeness, noodles for long life, Niángāo (年糕) or glutinous rice cake for increase in income, and Tāngyuán (汤圆) or sweet rice balls for family togetherness. Other New Year practices include wearing red, giving, hóngbāo setting off firecrackers and fireworks, and watching dragon and lion dances.
Fireworks, dragon and lion dances, red decorations, and family gatherings are common themes in Chinese New Year celebrations across the world, but many countries also have their own unique practices.
Chinese New Year in the Philippines mostly resembles the celebrations in China. Family gatherings are also held on New Year’s Eve, but there are slight variations to the dishes served. Tikoy is the Philippine version of Niángāo, and it’s usually deep fried instead of steamed. While whole chicken is a common New Year’s dish in China, Filipinos believe it’s bad luck to eat chicken at the beginning of the year because your life will mirror the saying “isang kain, isang tuka,” which means that you will earn just enough money to buy food and nothing else. Having a bowl that consists of 12 round fruits on the dinner table is also a Philippine tradition because in China, you don’t necessarily need to have 12, as long as you eat fruits that are round and golden like persimmons, oranges, tangerines, and pomelos.
In Singapore, New Year’s Eve dinners also include Lo Hei, which is a Cantonese term that translates to “tossing up good fortune.” It is a practice that involves a group of people gathering around a large plate of food and tossing its contents as high as possible while saying auspicious phrases. It is believed that the higher you toss, the higher your chances of good fortune in the year ahead. This isn’t a practice done in China because it originated from Cantonese migrants in Malaysia and Singapore.
In Hong Kong, people usually flock to the Victoria Park flower market during New Year’s Eve to pick up prized bouquets because it is believed to be good luck to give flowers when visiting family members. A dish called Poon Choi is served during New Year’s Eve dinner, which consists of everything from lotus roots and vegetables to various meats such as duck, chicken, pork, fish, and abalone. Poon Choi is a symbol of abundance, so the more ingredients there are, the better.
Horse racing is also a popular new year activity in Hong Kong. It is traditionally held on the third day of the new year because it is believed that it’s easier for people to get into arguments on this day, so they should avoid visiting relatives or friends. Instead, they go to the Sha Tin Racecourse, where the Hong Kong Jockey Club hosts the largest horse racing event of the year.
Taiwan has many public events to celebrate Chinese New year, with a notable example being the Yanshui Fireworks Festival. This is actually hailed as one of the most dangerous fireworks displays in the world because it involves people going to the streets wearing helmets and flame retardant clothing, as they stand in front of large beehive structures that shoot fireworks directly at them in all directions. This is one of the only times when getting hit by fireworks and almost being set on fire is a good thing. This might seem like such a random custom, but it actually originated in the 1800s, where the villagers of a cholera-ravaged town set off fireworks on the street in a desperate attempt to ask Guan Gong, the Chinese God of War to ward off the plague. The plague eventually ended, and the Fireworks Festival became the Taiwanese’s way of thanking Guan Gong.
Chinese New Year in Vietnam is known as Tết, shortened from Tết Nguyen Dan, which means “feast of the very first morning.” Like many other Chinese New Year traditions, food is also an important part of the celebrations in Vietnam, and families would serve a dish called Banh Chung, which is a square of sticky rice cake stuffed with beans and pork and wrapped in banana leaves. It’s also offered to ancestors during Tết. The square shape of the Banh Chung represents an offering from the earth, since the Ancient Vietnamese believed that the Earth was square.
While shrimp is a fixture of many Chinese New Year dishes, the Vietnamese believe that it’s bad luck to serve them because shrimp often swim backwards, and you too might move backwards if you eat them at the start of the year.
The Vietnamese also follow the Chinese zodiac, but instead of having a rabbit as the fourth animal sign, Vietnam has a cat. That’s because the ancient Chinese word for rabbit, which is mǎo tù, sounded like meo, which means cat in Vietnamese.
Chinese New Year in South Korea is known as Seollal, and one of the most important traditions that happen during this time is the Sebae. Sebae is the act of bowing deeply on the ground with your hands and forehead touching the ground, and this is done by young people who want to wish their elders a happy new year. They usually wear traditional Korean clothes called hanbok while performing this act, and the elders would reward them with money in red envelopes, which is called sebaetdon.
A traditional food served during Seollal is called tteokguk, which is rice cake soup with meat and seaweed. It is believed that eating tteokguk will make you one year older, but that’s only if you eat it during the new year, so you don’t have to worry about rapidly aging if your favorite food happens to be tteokguk.
These are just some of the countries that add their own twist to Chinese New Year, but they’re not the only countries that celebrate it. Chinese New Year is a common holiday even in countries outside of Asia, such as Brazil, Peru, Mauritius, the United States, The United Kingdom, France, and The Netherlands. Do you know any other traditions that weren’t mentioned in this article? Feel free to tell us more about them in the comments!