Lunar New Year (LNY) is celebrated by over 20% of the world but this celebratory period actually started out of fear and myth. Legend has it that at the end of each year, the beast Nian (which sounds like year in Mandarin) would attack and kill villagers. To scare the beast away, loud noises and bright lights would be used and thus the Lunar New Year celebrations began. We’ve outlined some of our favorite ways to celebrate below:
1. Firecrackers and Fireworks (鞭炮/煙火)
As mentioned above, the significance of firecrackers and fireworks during LNY are that they come with a lot of loud noises which was meant to scare away the beast Nian and other bad spirits. Additionally, on the 5th day of the New Year, it is believed that the gods of prosperity come down from the heavens so businesses set off firecrackers to bring them prosperity and good fortune. Nowadays, firecrackers and fireworks are also used to enhance the festive atmosphere.
2. Red Banners/Spring Couplets (春聯)
In addition to the loud noises, legend has it that these red banners, also known as spring couplets, that are used as a talisman to prevent bad spirits and monsters from entering the house. Nowadays, it is important to have these red banners hang up on your front door and inside the house as it usually has messages of “good fortune” and “prosperity” to wish your guests in the coming new year.
3. Red Envelopes (紅包/lì xì/angpau)
It is widely known that red is THE lucky color of not just Chinese culture, but also many other Asian cultures. The color red represents happiness and good fortune and contrary to what most people believe, the red packaging is what makes it special as it bestows good blessings on the receivers. It is actually impolite to open a red envelope in front of the person who gives it to you and the receivers of these red envelopes are typically children or those who are single and with no job. Once you start earning income, it is expected that you start being the giver instead.
4. Wishing Your Loved Ones (吉祥話)
Usually upon receiving these red envelopes, the receiver usually wishes the family member who has gifted them phrases that returns the blessing. Some examples of these phrases would be:
恭喜發財 (pronounced as: Gōngxǐ fācái) = Wish Prosperity and Good Fortune
年年有餘 (pronounced as: Nián nián yǒuyú) = Have Surplus Every Year
大吉大利 (pronounced as: Dàjí dàlì) = Great fortune and great favor
Vạn Sự Như Ý = Wishes Come True
Sức khoẻ dồi dào = Plenty of Health
5. Receiving/Giving Gifts (送禮)
Receiving and giving gifts is an essential part of Asian culture. Houses are usually filled with gifts of flowers and fruits and gift baskets containing other symbolic foods of that specific country/region. It's almost unheard to leave an Asian household during LNY without a red envelope or gifts.
6. Ancestor/Deity Worship (祭祖)
On Lunar New Year’s Eve, besides from worshiping the gods, people also worship their ancestors as a thanks for their protection and care in the past year. Worshiping ancestors also means saying goodbye to the past year and greeting ancestors for the coming new year. Before having a reunion dinner on Lunar New Year's Eve, the whole family will worship the ancestors together. They will provide offerings of food, drinks, and fruits for their ancestors so the ancestors can celebrate New Year while the younger generation is having the reunion dinner.
7. Visiting Temples (廟裏拜拜)
The first day of the LNY is the most important festival during the Spring. It is said that going to the temple on the first day of the lunar month to pray for blessings can receive special care from the gods. The first four days of the new year are seen as "Welcoming God Days" from the first to the fourth day of the lunar new year. During these days, people will go to the temples they believe in to worship with their family and friends, praying for good health, safety, luck and a smooth career development for the year.
8. Visiting Flower Markets (逛花市)
If you’re in Vietnam during the LNY, one of the must-do's is visiting a flower market. Every household will be decorated, inside and out, with beautiful flowers from many different regions of Vietnam. In the North, the peach blossom flower is by far the most popular (and most fitting due to temperature), while in the South, the apricot blossom is their favorite. Kumquat trees are also especially popular during this time of the year and are typically sold in these flower markets.
9. Yusheng (撈魚生)
As mentioned in our last article about LNY foods, fish is symbolic during this time because the character 魚 (fish) is pronounced the same as 餘 (surplus). Yusheng is a popular LNY activity in Malaysia and Singapore because the act of tossing the shredded ingredients of this raw fish salad and the height at which it is tossed, reflects the diner’s growth in fortunes.
10. Dragon and Lion Dance (舞龍舞獅)
During the LNY, traditional performances of dragon and lion dance are always found in temples or at new year celebrations. The meaning of the dance is to "pray for blessing from the gods", and it also represents good fortune and wealth of the new year.
Another version of the legend of the Nian Beast speaks to the origin of dragon and lion dance: Although the Nian Beast didn’t harm people, it bothered the villagers as it destroyed the farmland. In order to keep the Nian Beast away from the village, the villagers used bamboo to make a beast head and paint it with colors. In addition, they made the animal body by using a triangle-shaped cloth and two people sneaked into it to dance under the cloth. On the New Year’s Eve that year, when the Nian Beast reappeared, the farmers knocked on the boilers to make loud noises while two people were dancing under the animal body. It is said that the Nian Beast was scared, escaped into the mountain, and was never seen again.
To commemorate this victory, the villagers made it a custom to dance the animal body from New Year’s Eve to the first day of the new year every year. Till today, dragon and lion dance is a must-have festival for celebrations to bring good luck to the people.