Once again in 2024, a time of new beginnings is upon us as the Lunar New Year begins Feb. 10, kicking off the Year of the Dragon.

A solar year — the time it takes Earth to orbit the sun — lasts around 365 days, while a lunar year, or 12 full cycles of the moon, is roughly 354 days. Various cultures and religions use a lunar calendar to mark important holidays and celebrations.

“Essentially we are talking about time keeping, which is a very important function in any culture or society because time must be standardized if it is to be of any use,” says UCF Associate Professor of Philosophy Lanlan Kuang, whose research specializes in Asian arts, humanities, heritage and tradition. “The British Library has a Chinese star chart (the Dunhuang Star Atlas) that is dated to 700 AD, and what’s interesting is, you can see zodiac names in Chinese characters on this chart. Part of what that tells us people from around the globe have been applying astronomical observations and mathematical analysis as means for time keeping for a very long time.”

Dunhuang Chinese Star chart
The Dunhuang Star Atlas was created in 700 A.D. and is earliest known manuscript atlas of the night sky (courtesy of the British Library).

Bringing us to Lunar New Year, which begins with the first new moon of the lunar calendar and ends on the first full moon of the lunar calendar, two weeks later. Because it is based on the cycles of the moon, the dates vary annually.

The origins of the Lunar New Year festival are thousands of years old. Kuang along with Associated Professor of History Hong Zhang, who specializes in modern Chinese culture, explain more about the holiday’s traditions and modern celebrations.

House Cleaning, Bright Clothes and Money

There are many traditions to celebrate and taboos to avoid during the 15-day Lunar New Year celebration.

“It’s a celebration of the start of things new and you hope that by doing the proper celebrations and practices you’re going to set yourself up for a year of good fortune,” Zhang says.

Before the New Year, individuals are supposed to clean their houses. Zhang says the idea is that you sweep out the old and then bring in the new. But cleaning during the first 15 days of the new year is avoided because you’d sweep away your good fortune. Debts should also be paid off before the new year.

Houses are decorated with scrolls featuring auspicious words written on them, such as “fú (福)”  (which means good fortune). This character is often posted upside down because “upside-down” is pronounced “dao” in Chinese, and sounds like the word “arrival” — implying the arrival of good fortune to your house. Red and gold are used most often, Kuang explains, because red invokes energy — from the primitive days of humans’ need of fire for survival — and gold symbolizes wealth.

Once the new year celebration has started, be mindful of what you say — no swearing, or ominous words like “death,” that could bring about misfortune. The color scheme in one’s wardrobe is also important.

“When I was in China as a kid I think what I loved about the festival the most was new clothes,” Zhang says. “You are supposed to wear good, bright-colored clothes on the first day of the new year.”

Another tradition that is a favorite among children is the receiving of red envelopes filled with money from their elders.

“Stemming from Confucianism, which originated in China, respects are to be paid to anyone who is more senior than you,” Kuang says. “On the other hand, as a senior, you are supposed to take care of the younger generations. On New Year’s, children pay their respects to their grandparents or the senior members of their family, and in return, they are given a little gift.”

AKA Spring Festival

The Lunar New Year is also commonly referred to as the Spring Festival, or “Chūn Jié (春节)”.

“It became more popular in the 20th century after the Chinese communist government took over,” says Zhang. “There was a time when the government wanted to get rid of things that represented traditional China. They encouraged the use of the term spring festival. It also was adopted to help avoid confusion with the New Year of the solar calendar, which the new Republican government in China adopted in 1912. In a way, the celebration of a new year is a celebration of the coming spring.”

The 15-day celebration is recognized in China, Vietnam, South Korea, Mongolia, Singapore and other Asian countries. And many other cultures and religions use a lunar-based calendar, such as Judaism and Islam.

Common well-wishes in Chinese for the New Year are:

“Guò Nián Hǎo”: A Good Start/Crossing into the New Year!

Xīn Nián Kuài Lè”: Happy New Year!

Food and Drink

Food and drinks are a special part of the celebration and are specific to each region in China and other countries.

plate of dumplings
While fish and pork fillings are found in China’s northeast regions, beef and lamb fillings are standard in the northwest. (Photo courtesy of Lanlan Kuang)

Zhang says in North China where flour is abundant, such as in her hometown of Tianjin, dumplings are a must eat. They are shaped in a way that resemble silver ingots, symbolizing good fortune for the coming year.

Kuang grew up in South China where tangerines are popular because the fruit is pronounced “jú (桔)”, which is similar to the word for luck, “‘ji (吉)”. In addition to being served, tangerine trees are also brought home to be decorated, similar to Christmas trees, for the festival.

Rice cakes are also a must and are referred to as “nián (年) gāo (糕)”. “Nián (年)” means year and “gāo (糕)” means cake or pastry. The word “gāo (糕)” has a homonym “gāo (高)”, which translates to mean either “higher” or “taller.”

Fish is also desirable, Kuang says, because it’s pronounced “yú (鱼)”, which means extra.

“It’s meant to symbolize abundance in the next year,” she says. “You will save more and earn more with extra harvests and luck.”

2024: Year of the Dragon

Because the zodiac signs have been used for millennia, it’s hard to pinpoint their origin. According to legend, the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac were selected through a race that the Jade Emperor held in honor of his birthday. The first 12 to reach the finish line enjoyed a celebratory feast and were adopted as the zodiac signs.

The order of the lunar calendar follows the outcome of the race, where the rat is the first animal to start the sequence, and the pig is the last. After the pig, the sequence starts over again.

This year is all about the dragon, which came in fifth. In Chinese culture, the dragon represents imperial power and authority. The dragon is an auspicious symbol of strength and power. It is also associated with good fortune, wisdom, success and protection.

Zhang says for many years, zodiac signs were taken into account for couples before marriage.

“In the past, a family would use a matchmaker to arrange a marriage, and the matchmaker would ask the potential couple’s zodiac years to see if they were compatible,” says Zhang, born in a year of tiger. “There were a lot of superstitions. Those ideas have been fading away as time has progressed, but some people still believe in them.”

Time of Migration

The journey to home for the Spring Festival is called “chun yun (春运) in Chinese, which literally means “spring movement.” Last year, nearly 760 million people traveled in the first 10 days of the Spring Festival travel rush, according to the China Ministry of Transport — roughly 14 times more than the amount of Thanksgiving travelers in the United States annually.

“The expectation is that it no matter where you are in China, you’re supposed to go back home for the festival and new year celebration,” Zhang says. “That sometimes causes friction between married couples, especially if their parents are from different regions. Very often you have to do some negotiating with each other and with your respective parents.”

Due to the pandemic, more of those well-wishes and visits may happen electronically this year, which Zhang says is getting more popular in the modern era.

Lantern Festival

The final day of China’s New Year celebrations is the Lantern Festival, which falls on the first full moon of the lunar new year. It has been celebrated since the days of the Han Dynasty around 2,000 years ago, which culminated with the spread of Buddhism across China.

“According to legend, Emperor Hangmindi, who ruled around the beginning of the first century, saw that Buddhist monks would light lanterns on the 15th day of the Chinese year to show respect to the Buddha, and ordered that the tradition be repeated in the Imperial Palace,” Kuang says. “Now the lanterns often symbolize letting go of their owners’ past selves and symbolize good luck, and the Lantern Festival has become one of the most important events on the Chinese calendar.”