Chloe Allibon provides a brief history of Lunar New Year, describing Chinese, Tibetan and Vietnamese traditions and celebrations.
On Thursday 19 February, Lunar New Year celebrations will begin, as we move from the year of the horse to the year of the sheep or goat.
Despite often being referred to as Chinese New Year, Lunar New Year is also (although not exhaustively) celebrated in Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, Vietnam, Korea and Mongolia.
New Year celebrations are packed with legend and tradition and last for around fifteen days, starting each year on a new moon and lasting until the moon shines at its brightest.
According to legend, the Jade Emperor (or in some versions Buddha) asked all the animals to meet him on New Year’s Eve and only twelve showed up.
He therefore named a year after each one and proclaimed that people would share some characteristics with the animal of the year of their birth.
There are many stories regarding how they came to arrive in that order. The animals are said to appear on the calendar in the same order they appeared to Buddha. Other stories often feature a race or the crossing of a river.
In these stories the rat’s place as the first animal is usually explained by the rat riding on the ox’s back, and then sneaking in front of it when they arrived to the Emperor/Buddha. The rat is also usually blamed for the absence of the cat, either through promising to wake the cat up and forgetting or through pushing the cat from the back of the ox into the river, causing it to arrive too late.
The tradition of lighting fireworks for Lunar New Year is based upon a story about a monster travelling from village to village looking for food until it reached a village which had just lit a fire of bamboo. The fire scared away the monster, so people began lighting bamboo sticks to celebrate the New Year, moving on to fireworks over time.
The colour red is commonly worn during the celebrations to symbolise fire, and so to frighten away evil spirits and drive away bad luck.
People also celebrate by decorating with poems written on red paper and parents give children money in red envelopes which is believed to be lucky.
The fifteenth and final day of the New Year’s celebrations is the lantern festival. This involves people carrying lanterns, which are painted with pictures of animals, flowers, zodiac signs and scenes from legend/history in a parade under the full moon.
Lanterns are also hung in temples and around the house. A highlight of the lantern parade is the dragon dance, where a dragon made of silk, paper and bamboo is carried in the parade.
The Tibetan New Year festival is known as Losar and is celebrated in Nepal and Bhutan along with Tibet. The main celebrations for Losar take place in the first three of the fifteen days.
On the first day, an alcoholic drink called ‘changkol’ is made from ‘chhaang’, a Tibetan drink similar to beer.
The second day is known as ‘gyalpo losar’, meaning King’s Losar. Losar predates the lunisolar calendar and was originally celebrated at the winter solstice. However, the festival was moved to coincide with the Lunar New Year when the Chinese calendar was adopted in Tibet.
The Vietnamese New Year festival is known as ‘Tet’, short for ‘Tet Nguyen Dan’, which means ‘feast of the first morning of the first day’. It is usually celebrated on the same day as Chinese New Year, however some years it may differ slightly due to a one hour time difference resulting in the new moon being calculated differently.
The celebrations are seen to mark the beginning of Spring and it is traditional to visit paternal relatives on the first day, maternal relatives on the second and teachers on the third.
After this people visit other relatives, friends and neighbours and before the celebrations are over they burn offerings to their ancestors.
Lunar New Year is based on the Chinese lunisolar calendar which, unlike the Gregorian calendar, is based on the cycle of the moon as well as the earth’s cycle around the sun.
The Lunar New Year begins on the second new moon after the winter solstice. The lunisolar calendar is made up by twelve months of 29 or 30 days, and is adjusted to fit with the solar year through the addition of an extra month during Gregorian leap years.
Along with one of the twelve animals, each year is also assigned one of these five elements; metal, wood, water, fire and earth.
The five elements represent Venus, Jupiter, Mercury, Mars and Saturn respectively. The combinations resulting from the twelve animals and the five elements result in a total of sixty combinations, so the lunisolar calendar operates on a sixty year cycle.
While the animal changes every year, the element changes every two years. According to Chinese zodiac beliefs, this cycle can be combined with yin and yang, a person’s date and time of birth, and the positions of the sun and moon to tell their future.
This Lunar New Year marks the beginning of Chinese year 4712: the year of the wooden sheep, and is predicted to be one of prosperity, luck and opportunity. Happy new year all!
What does your birthday say about you?
The Rat (Birthdays in 1912, 1924, 1936, 1948, 1960, 1972, 1984, 1996, 2008): Rats are intelligent, charming, social and forthright, but they can be selfish and somewhat ruthless.
The Ox (Birthdays in 1913, 1925, 1937, 1949, 1961, 1973, 1985, 1997, 2009): Oxen are sturdy, hardworking and dependable with a logical approach to problems, but they can by stubborn and inflexible at times.
The Tiger (Birthdays in 1914, 1926, 1938, 1950, 1962, 1974, 1986, 1998, 2010): Tigers are powerful, passionate, and good at making decisions on impulse, but they can sometimes be reckless and foolish.
The Rabbit (Birthdays in 1915, 1927, 1939, 1951, 1963, 1975, 1987, 1999, 2011): Rabbits are friendly, compassionate and artistic, but can be lazy and self-indulgent at times.
The Dragon (Birthdays in 1916, 1928, 1940, 1952, 1964, 1976, 1988, 2000, 2012): Dragons are generous and loyal and make good leaders, but can be demanding and arrogant.
The Snake (Birthdays in 1917, 1929, 1941, 1953, 1965, 1977, 1989, 2001, 2013): Snakes are wise, cautious and strong, but can be prone to self-doubt and loneliness.
The Horse (Birthdays in 1918, 1930, 1942, 1954, 1966, 1978, 1990, 2002, 2014): Horses are witty, perceptive and cheerful, but can also be gullible and anxious.
The Sheep/Goat (Birthdays in 1919, 1931, 1943, 1955, 1967, 1979, 1991, 2003, 2015): Sheep are sincere and determined and are the most creative animal. However, they can be prone to worrying and indecisiveness.
The Monkey (Birthdays in 1920, 1932, 1944, 1956, 1968, 1980, 1992, 2004, 2016): Monkeys are social, intellectual and self-assured, but can be manipulative and prone to jealousy.
The Rooster (Birthdays in 1921, 1933, 1945, 1957, 1969, 1981, 1993, 2005, 2017): Roosters are decisive, practical and organised, but can be abrasive and egotistical.
The Dog (Birthdays in 1922, 1934, 1946, 1958, 1970, 1982, 1994, 2006, 2018): Dogs are loyal, moralistic and affectionate, but can be judgemental and fretful.
The Pig (birthdays in 1923, 1935, 1947, 1959, 1971, 1983, 1995, 2007, 2019): Pigs are thoughtful, patient and intelligent, but can also be naïve and materialistic.