10 Essential Lunar New Year Traditions for Celebrating Around the World

As people in many Asian countries prepare to say goodbye to the past year and welcome a new one, our team here at Remitly wishes all our customers a happy new year.

Lunar New Year is the biggest annual holiday in China, South Korea, and Vietnam, and it is a major holiday in many other countries in East Asia and Southeast Asia. In common with most New Year’s traditions around the world, it’s a season to celebrate, prepare, and focus on luck and prosperity for the new year. Read on for the most famous of these Lunar New Year customs.

In modern China, the New Year is also known as the “Spring Festival.” In South Korea, it’s called Seollal. And in Vietnam, the holiday is known as Tết.

Other countries, such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, and the Philippines, typically refer to it as Lunar New Year. In the U.S., Canada, and Europe, it’s often known as “Chinese New Year,” largely because the Chinese calendar determines the date each year.

Some of the first celebrations and observances date back to over 3,800 years ago during the Shang Dynasty. Following the cycles of the moon, or lunar calendar, the Lunar New Year generally falls in late January or early February in the Gregorian calendar. This year, the Lunar New Year is on February 10th, 2024, and will usher in the Year of the Dragon.

Celebrating Lunar New Year Abroad

Asian immigrants have found new ways to celebrate when they’re far from their home country. 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 China.

Michelle explains, “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, she adds, 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 in the most intuitive way we know and that is through food,” Michelle says.

10 Lunar New Year Traditions

Each country has its own take on the traditional New Year celebration. Despite the differences, there are commonalities that unite the annual observance of Chinese New Year’s Eve and Day around the world. Let’s take a look at some of these traditions.

Lunar New Year dragon dance

1. Dances, parades, and street parties

A symbol of the Lunar New Year that is somewhat familiar worldwide is a vibrant, lively parade with dragon and lion dances, acrobats, masked dancers, and other folk pageantry.

Many communities hold these public celebrations, which usually involve participants and viewers making lots of noise in the street with firecrackers, gongs, drums, and bells.

These noises are used to ward off evil spirits, called “nian” in Mandarin. In Vietnam, parades feature the Mua Lan, a hybrid lion, dragon, and unicorn symbolizing strength.

Larger expat communities across the globe have similar celebrations, especially in big cities. In the United States, San Francisco’s and New York City’s Chinatowns hold big festivals. The Vietnamese community in Orange County, California, hosts a big annual Tet Festival.

2. Honoring gods, ancestors, and elders

Many families visit temples during the Lunar New Year. They go there to pray for good luck, place food offerings, and burn incense for the gods and ancestors. A Vietnamese ritual for the Lunar New Year involves burning incense and inviting ancestors to join in with the celebrations.

It’s also common practice throughout New Year celebrations for younger generations to honor their elders and wish them a long life. This might mean special greetings, bowing, and deference while sharing food. This type of ritual is also typically a part of gift-giving and receiving.

3. Wearing new clothes

Wearing new clothes during the Lunar New Year means a new start. People tend to choose vibrant colors such as red when buying clothes. Red typically symbolizes harmony, good luck, and happiness. Keep in mind that you should avoid wearing black or white during the New Year, as people usually wear these colors at funerals.

In Korea, it’s a common practice to wear new traditional clothing like the hanbok during the holiday, but in contemporary times, many people prefer an informal approach to clothing.

In parts of China, it’s bad luck to buy new shoes during the new year. This is because, in Cantonese, the word for shoes sounds like sighing, which is too negative for such a happy time.

4. Posting spring couplets on the door

Spring couplets, or Chunlian in Chinese (春聯), are also known as Spring Festival couplets or Chinese New Year couplets.

During the New Year, people write black or golden characters on red paper. Spring couplets are composed of a pair of poetry lines or blessings vertically pasted on both sides of the front door and a four-character horizontal scroll affixed above the door frame.

Pasting couplets expresses people’s delight in the festival and wishes for a better life in the coming year.

Lunar New Year spring couplets

5. Giving red envelopes and other gifts

Giving gifts to the friends and family you visit during the Lunar New Year is another big tradition. Suitable gifts vary by region and from family to family, but it’s common for elders to present a gift of money to children.

Chinese children receive “hongbao”: red envelopes containing money. In Vietnam, adults give “Li Xi” or “lucky money” to children. The Korean tradition of Sebaetdon offers paper money in silk bags with traditional designs.

Other gifts are given for the Lunar New Year. Sweets, fruit, special delicacies, flowers, and tea leaves are popular. In Korea, ginseng, honey, and health products are traditional gifts for parents. In China, people like giving the elderly gift boxes or gift baskets to show their appreciation. Small peach trees are a popular New Year’s gift in Hong Kong.

Gift-giving makes the lead-up to the Lunar New Year a busy shopping time.

6. Spring cleaning

Another element of preparation for the Lunar New Year that’s both practical and ritualistic is a serious spring cleaning session. The ritual element relates to sweeping out evil spirits that might be hiding in nooks and crannies.

Families will move furniture to clean every corner and generally make the home spotless in preparation for visitors. This might include touching up paint, making repairs, and washing windows. Some regions designate a certain day of the New Year period as the traditional house-cleaning day.

7. Eating special foods for Lunar New Year

Lunar New Year celebrations always involve lots of special food. On New Year’s Eve, meals are often the largest feast of the year. Some call the New Year’s Eve dinner “family reunion dinner” (團圓飯), where families gather and enjoy time together.

Every region has traditional foods associated with the holiday. In China, these are typically chosen because their names sound similar to words meaning abundance, luck, or prosperity. For example, a traditional whole fish called “yu” shares its name with the word for abundance. In Shanghai, certain dumplings that resemble gold ingots are traditional. In Guangzhou, oysters are eaten because their name in the local dialect means “good business.”

Matt Reischer, a food critic for a Chinese neighborhood blog, 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.”

Chao Wang, owner of Hunan Slurp, shares, “[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 Rice cake with soybean powder and brown sugar.”

Rice cake is another food people love to eat during the reunion dinner for the Lunar New Year. Cake, also called “gao” in Chinese, is the homonym for ‘height’ in Mandarin. So, according to Chinese traditions, eating gao 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 year ahead.

The New Year rice cake can come in different forms or flavors. The most traditional is made from rice flour, so it’s recommended to pan-fry or steam the cake until well done for the most optimal flavor.

Ning (Amelie) Kang, chef-owner of MáLà Project, says, “At home, we would always eat dumplings on New Year’s 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 customs alive. My friends gather in my apartment and make dumplings together.”

Traditional Vietnamese dishes for the Lunar New Year include peanut brittle, coconut candy, and banh chung, a steamed rice cake with pork stuffing wrapped in banana leaves.

In Korea, teokguk is a popular dish for the New Year’s reunion dinner. It’s a soup with clear broth and white rice cakes, and it symbolizes a clean mind and body for the new year.

8. Taking care of finances

Preparing for a year ending and a new one beginning, many take the chance to tie up loose financial ends, both business and personal. Businesses and individuals will pay off debts, collect money owed, balance the books, and generally prepare a clean slate for the upcoming year.

This is a practical Lunar New Year tradition, too, as most businesses close for at least a few days over the holiday. Further, it’s considered vulgar to try to collect a debt during the New Year itself.

9. Visiting family and friends

Family reunions, often involving long-distance travel, are a major part of Lunar New Year customs in every country that celebrates. This turns the holiday into the busiest time of year for travel. The travel rush for the Spring Festival in China is even described by CNN as the world’s biggest season of human migration.

As well as general homecomings, Lunar New Year traditions involve visiting extended family and friends, often in a prescribed order as the days of the holiday progress. For instance, you might spend the first day with the nucleus family, then visit the closest paternal relatives, followed by maternal relatives, and later, visit friends.

Superstitions about good luck come into play in some communities. A person who has experienced a lucky, prosperous year might be invited to enter a house first to symbolically bring their good luck with them.

10. Celebrating the Lantern Festival

The Lantern Festival is on the 15th day of the Lunar New Year. During the Lantern Festival, children go out at night and carry paper lanterns and solve riddles on the lanterns. Historically, the brightest lanterns symbolized good fortune and hope and were thought to chase away bad luck.

On this day, families eat tangyuan “湯圓” (Southern China, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia) or yuanxiao “元宵” (Northern China). It’s a sticky rice ball typically filled with sweet red bean paste, sesame paste, or peanut butter paste.

In ancient times, young people went out on this, hoping to find love. Matchmakers would try to pair couples. In modern times, the festival no longer has such implications, but red lanterns hang still.

Lunar New Year decoration - lanterns

FAQ: Lunar New Year traditions

Why do you clean your house on Lunar New Year?

Cleaning the house before the Lunar New Year, known as “sweeping the dust,” serves as a critical practice to ensure the household is ready for a fresh beginning. This tradition is not merely about physical cleanliness but also symbolizes the family’s effort to bid farewell to the old year, removing any ill-fortune and making space for incoming luck. The act of cleaning is done with great care to avoid sweeping away the good luck on the first days of the New Year, hence it is typically completed before the celebration begins. Engaging in this activity fosters a sense of renewal and hope among family members, setting a positive tone for the year ahead.

Why do you put oranges on your bed?

Oranges are a staple during Lunar New Year celebrations, embodying prosperity, good luck, and abundance. When placed on the bed, they are not only decorative but also serve as a potent symbol of inviting wealth into one’s life and ensuring a fruitful year ahead. This practice stems from the belief that the start of the New Year is the perfect time to attract positive energies and blessings into one’s home. The vibrant color and sweet fragrance of oranges add to the festive atmosphere, reminding everyone of the sweetness and possibilities the new year holds.

Why do you eat noodles?

Noodles hold a special place in Lunar New Year feasts, symbolizing more than just a tasty dish. They represent a wish for longevity, reflecting the desire for a long and healthy life. This custom encourages the consumption of uncut noodles, which signifies the eater’s hope for life to stretch on as endlessly as the noodles themselves. Enjoying a plate of long noodles without breaking them is a fun and meaningful activity that brings families together, emphasizing the importance of health and well-being in the celebrations.

Why do you get red envelopes?

The tradition of giving red envelopes, filled with money, is a highlight of Lunar New Year festivities, embodying wishes for prosperity, happiness, and good health. The color red in Chinese culture is auspicious, symbolizing energy, happiness, and good luck. By giving red envelopes, elders are passing on their blessings and good wishes to the younger generation, reinforcing familial bonds and the cycle of giving and receiving. This custom is a tangible expression of love, blessings, and hopes for a prosperous future, deeply ingrained in the celebration of the Lunar New Year.

Why do you give two mandarin oranges?

The exchange of two mandarin oranges is a heartfelt tradition that encapsulates the essence of Lunar New Year’s spirit of sharing and goodwill. This practice, rich in symbolism, is rooted in the phonetic resemblance of the word for oranges to ‘gold’ in many Chinese dialects, thus signifying an offering of wealth. The act of giving and receiving these oranges in pairs is imbued with significance, representing the dual blessings of good fortune and happiness. It’s a simple yet profound way to convey respect and good wishes, enhancing the communal joy and unity of the festival.

Is it bad luck to reuse red envelopes?

In many Asian cultures, reusing red envelopes is not traditionally recommended, as each envelope is seen as a new blessing and token of good fortune for the new year. Giving a red envelope is a gesture filled with wishes for prosperity, health, and happiness, and using a new envelope for each gift emphasizes these wishes’ sincerity and uniqueness. However, attitudes towards reusing red envelopes are changing, especially in the context of environmental sustainability. Some families choose to reuse envelopes in informal settings or within the immediate family as a nod to eco-conscious practices, suggesting that the emphasis is on the sentiment rather than the physical item itself.

What about the Chinese zodiac?

Chinese tradition assigns an animal to each new year in a 12-year cycle. Each animal represents certain characteristics both for the year and for the people born during that year. The Chinese zodiac years are known as the:

  • Year of the rat
  • Year of the ox
  • Year of the tiger
  • Year of the rabbit
  • Year of the dragon
  • Year of the snake
  • Year of the horse
  • Year of the goat
  • Year of the monkey
  • Year of the rooster
  • Year of the dog
  • Year of the pig

Happy Lunar New Year!

Once again, everyone here at Remitly wishes you a Happy Lunar New Year’s Eve and Lunar New Year period. We hope that learning about how various Asian countries celebrate New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day will encourage you to prepare delicious food, visit family members, and enjoy traditional games during the festive period.

If you need to send digital red envelopes to family members living abroad as a part of your Chinese New Year celebration or are looking for a way to send funds to loved ones during the upcoming year, keep us in mind. Remitly makes it simple and affordable to send digital New Year’s money to many Asian countries and beyond.