Lunar New Year is on February 5th this year. Some of the first celebrations date back to over 3,800 years ago during the Shang Dynasty. Today, Lunar New Year festivities take place all over the world, but especially so in East, Southeast, and South Asia as well as in overseas communities, and often take place for days leading up to and following the big holiday.
How is Lunar New Year celebrated?
Lunar New Year is celebrated differently and also has different names depending on the country. In Vietnam, the first day of Lunar New Year is known as Tết, while in China and other Southeast Asian countries, it is called Chinese New Year.
Each country and region has their own unique customs for Lunar New Year celebrations. Tết is considered a sacred holiday in Vietnam that recognizes deities and is a time for paying respect to one’s ancestors and family members. Tết, which can take place over several days, is often a time filled with gift-giving of particular items that bring luck and good fortune, such as new clothes and rice wine, to name a few.
The first day of Tết is usually reserved for immediate family, while the second day is for friends, and the third is for teachers. Many people make or buy Bánh Chưng to eat during Tết, as well as decorate or arrange an ancestral altar and bring home ornamental flowers or plants.
A few other common Lunar New Year customs across several countries include preparing for a fresh start and good fortune in the new year ahead (such as cleaning one’s house days before New Years), visiting friends on the first day of the new year, setting off fireworks and hanging red lanterns, and exchanging red envelopes with money inside.
Keeping traditions alive through food
For many people who live away from their families, cooking traditional meals and eating food with friends, neighbors, or loved ones helps them feel connected to their family’s customs and traditions.
Some first-generation Chinese Americans, like Michelle, a lifestyle blogger, feel that it can be difficult to celebrate Lunar New Year when living abroad since the festivities are not as elaborately celebrated outside of her home country.
Michelle explains that, “Similar to Christmas in western countries, the Lunar New Year is the biggest holiday of the culture. Companies close for days, families travel home, and gifts (in the form of money stuffed in a red envelope) are passed out to children.” Each tradition is meant to symbolize and “bring upon good fortune, health, and prosperity for the new year to come.”
A major way that she maintains traditions from her home country is to recreate beloved holiday dishes. “Although it may not feel as festive as it is in Asia, we still try to celebrate by the most intuitive way we know, and that is through food,” Michelle says. She also shared three of the most traditional dishes that she usually has during Lunar New Year “that symbolizes the spirit of this holiday and help us celebrate this important tradition.”
Here are a few of Michelle’s favorite dishes for the first day of Lunar New Year:
Dumplings (Jiao Zi)
- “Dumplings, also named Jiao Zi in Chinese, symbolize good fortune and prosperity. Because dumplings are generally made in the shape like a gold ingot (known as yuanbao,) it represents wealth and prosperity in the new year ahead. Generally, Chinese family get together on Chinese New Year’s Eve and make dumplings together. It not only is a great dish on the dinner table, but it’s also a great family activity as the family catches up on events from the past year.”
New Year Cake (Nian Gao)
- “Cake, also called Gao in Chinese, is the homonym with ‘height’ in Chinese. So according to Chinese traditions, eating new year cake is not only a great way to celebrate the Chinese New Year, but it also symbolizes that the entire family will reach a new height in the new year coming. Children will study hard and get good grades in school, parents will do in their jobs, and grandparents will happily live their lives. The New Year Cake can come in different forms or flavors. But the most traditional one is made from rice flours, so it’s recommended to pan fry or steam until well done for most optimal taste.”
- “Fish is a must-have dish on the dinner table of every Chinese New Year banquet. Fish, also called Yu in Chinese, is the homonym with the words ‘abundance and access.’ And with an abundance of resources in life, it symbolizes prosperity and living comfortably in the new year to come. According to the Chinese ritual, it is best to cook two fishes for the new year dinner. Both fishes get placed on the dinner table but only one is eaten, leaving the other one as a sign for ‘abundance’ for the new year ahead.”
Fish is a popular dish eaten during Lunar and Chinese New Year. Matt Reischer, a food critic for a Chinese neighborhood blog, also shares that “[My wife and I] make sure to eat a whole fish (usually bass or croaker) which symbolizes ‘unity’ for the coming new year.”
Celebrating Lunar New Year abroad
While San Francisco has one of the largest Lunar New Year celebrations in the world outside of Asia, New York also serves as a major hub for festivities, many of which involve eating traditional meals from various regions in Asia.
We asked several restaurant owners in the New York area what their Lunar New Year traditions were like. Many also noted the significance of food as a way to help them keep family traditions alive. Chao Wang, owner of Hunan Slurp, shares, “Chinese New Year means family and gathering for me. Though I moved to the U.S., good food and red envelopes are essentials. [I] grew up in Hunan, [so] I inhabited the tradition of having a few specific dishes on the dinner table on the day: Handmade Fishcake, Sweet Chicken Soup, and Ricecake with soybean powder & brown sugar.”
Food is a central part of gatherings with friends for Ning (Amelie) Kang, chef-owner of MáLà Project. She elaborates, “At home, we would always eat dumplings on New Years Day, and after dinner, we would gather around the TV and snack on sunflower seeds while chatting. After I moved to the U.S., I still try to keep these traditions alive. My friends gather in my apartment and make dumplings together. After, we’d sit around and watch the Chinese New Year gala on TV.”
No matter where you are in the world, celebrating your family’s traditions shows them how much you care even from far away. Send a small gift to your loved ones in Vietnam or Thailand for Lunar New Year with Remitly and we’ll get it there safely and on time.