More Than Just “Chinese” New Year
Lunar New Year: the term speaks of dining tables filled with dishes, firecrackers going off, and the beloved red envelopes that every child waits the entire year for.
For many Asian families around the world, Lunar New Year is one of the most awaited holidays of the year. An estimated 2 billion people—an astounding fourth of the world—celebrate Lunar New Year annually with locations ranging from China to Korea to Vietnam and all the way across the Atlantic to the United States.
In the United States, Lunar New Year is commonly misconceived to be a solely Chinese holiday, with many, even at the government and state levels, calling it Chinese New Year; in reality, Lunar New Year is a holiday celebrated by many Asian countries. While it stemmed from China in the Shang Dynasty, the holiday has traveled throughout Asia to other cultures and nations that have utilized the Chinese Lunar calendar or were influenced by Chinese culture. Currently, China, Vietnam, South and North Korea, the Phillippines, and other Asian countries all celebrate Lunar New Year.
In China, Lunar New Year is called the Spring Festival. The origins of the holiday are grounded in a legend about a monster named Nian attacking a village. The villagers fended off Nian by wearing red, putting up couplets—which are poetic verses—and setting off firecrackers. Today, similar traditions are still followed. Couplets are pasted outside doorways, firecrackers are set off. Dining tables are filled with symbolic dishes meant to resemble prosperity, abundance, and wealth, such as fish, which represents abundant prosperity. Red envelopes are given in abundance to young people, the crinkled money peaking out of the decorated packet.
While most other countries pull elements from China’s Lunar New Year, many have their unique traditions.
In Vietnam, Lunar New Year is called Tết; it is short for Tết Nguyên Đán, meaning “Festival of the First Morning of the First Day”. The zodiac calendar Vietnam follows is also different from that of China. As a result, while many other countries celebrated the Year of the Rabbit in 2023, Vietnam celebrated the Year of the Cat.
Flowers are a central part of Tết; Vietnamese families will buy peach blossom trees, kumquat trees, and orange trees, along with flowers such as chrysanthemums and orchids, to decorate their homes. These flowers have symbolic meanings such as luck, happiness, and joy.
Meanwhile, in South Korea, Lunar New Year is celebrated as Seollal. The holiday centers around ancestor worship. Families traditionally participate in “charye”, a highly structured ritual of ancestor worship. Female relatives prepare food as male relatives serve it to the ancestors. To close this ritual, all participate in “eumbok”, where they eat the food and gain the ancestors’ blessing for the coming year.
A prominent Korean dish for the holiday is tteokguk, or rice cake soup. This dish is rife with symbolism: the rice cakes’ oval shape symbolizes prosperity due to their resemblance to coins, and their white color symbolizes purity and the fresh start to a new year. By eating this dish, Koreans mark the passing of a year and the start of the next one.
Just as Asian countries begin their celebrations for this prominent holiday, so are the Asian diaspora scattered across the globe, a large sector of which reside in the United States.
In the United States resides 18.43 million Asian Americans, many of whom celebrate Lunar New Year. Despite such an astounding and diverse figure, many in the U.S. hold the idea that Lunar New Year is a solely Chinese holiday, with many politicians calling it “Chinese New Year” instead.
Even Google harbors this idea. When one searches for “Lunar New Year”, Google quickly gives you several searches for Lunar New Year-associated articles and websites—and Chinese New Year ones, as well. However, Tết and Seollal, both also Lunar New Year holidays, are entirely omitted from the results.
It’s important to point out a vital fact: in China, Lunar New Year is not even referred to as “Chinese New Year”. Rather, this word to describe Lunar New Year is completely a Western invention, hypothesized to have been made up in order to differentiate it from the Gregorian New Year.
This Western invention only shows America’s habit of simplifying ethnic differences into a singular identity without concern for those affected. This has been seen commonly from the perspectives of Asian Americans, many of whom are mistaken for ethnicities that aren’t their own or mistaken for fellow Asian peers that look nothing like them.
In the case of Lunar New Year, generalizing a holiday that many different ethnicities and cultures celebrate to represent only one identity does more than sustain a culture of ignorance surrounding unique Asian ethnicities—it perpetuates an idea that Lunar New Year is exclusively Chinese and dismisses the other cultures that partake in the celebration in their own ways as well.
Messing up “Chinese New Year” and “Lunar New Year” seems like a minor mistake, but it’s more than that. It’s a reminder of the persistent tendencies of our society to generalize ethnicities in order to simplify the understanding of distinct, unique cultures.