For billions of people all over the world, the Lunar New Year starts a new year in the lunisolar calendar and is considered the most important holiday of the year. The Chinese made the first exact lunisolar calendar around 500 BCE. While they are not the only people to follow this calendar, they were the first to produce the most accurate one. On February 3, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, and Mongolian people all over the world are ringing in the new year with traditions specific to their own cultures. However, there are some similar customs all four cultures practice. Similarities include cleaning the house, eating symbolic foods, and spending time with family.
The Chinese refer to this holiday as the “Spring Festival” while the Vietnamese call it Tet. There are many overlapping traditions with how these two cultures celebrate the New Year. Both place great stock in the color red, which can be seen everywhere. People wear red clothes and adorn homes in red décor, especially red sheets of paper that are inscribed with various well-wishes for the New Year. People purchase new clothes, get haircuts, and try to settle all debts and arguments prior to the New Year so they may start fresh. An exciting part of the Lunar New Year celebrations is lighting long fire cracker strings to scare away bad luck and evil spirits. Drum beating and lion dancers in elaborate costumes accompany it. Red envelopes are also a common sight in many Chinese and Vietnamese households; older, married folks will hand out red envelopes with money inside to younger, single family members in order to wish them prosperity and good luck in the coming year. For the Chinese, fish is a staple in the Chinese New Year diet. The Chinese word for fish is a homophone of the word for prosperity.1 The Vietnamese prefer banh trung, a traditional dish made from sticky (glutinous) rice, mung bean, and meat (traditionally pork), all wrapped in banana leaves to steam. 2
Koreans, who call this holiday Seollal, also hand out “New Year money” to younger family members for good luck. Like the Chinese and Vietnamese, it is very important for Koreans to be together as family during the New Year celebrations. They commit to traveling very long distances to pay their respects to their elders. A variety of foods are served for Seollal, but one specific dish can be found on every table, tteokguk. This is a dish made of beef broth and thinly sliced chewy rice cakes known as tteok. According to myth, eating tteokguk on Seollal will add one year to your age.3
For the Mongolians, the Lunar New Year is known as Tsagaan Sar or “White Month.” This is a very busy time of the year in Mongolia with some people beginning their preparations as early as one month in advance! Most households are busy with cooking and cleaning, some even make new clothes.4 Unlike the Chinese and Vietnamese, however, Mongolians think of white, not red, as the color of happiness and health.