Chinese New Year Vs. Lunar New Year: What's The Difference?
You might want to think twice before wishing someone a Happy Chinese New Year.
A few years ago, a good friend greeted me with "Happy Chinese New Year" as I was handing out invitations to a local Lunar New Year party in Maine. I paused, feeling a familiar rush of emotions I couldn’t describe overwhelm me along with a rush of anger. It was clear by his greeting that my friend, who was well aware that I am not Chinese, was just one of many people who was ignorant of the difference between Chinese New Year and Lunar New Year — the holiday that I, as a Vietnamese person, celebrate. Instead of letting it slide, I chose to confront the misconception.
Offended and upset, I asked him point-blank:
What makes you think Vietnamese people celebrate Chinese New Year?
At first he was taken aback by my question, but puzzlement quickly turned to embarrassment when my friend realized his mistake — well-intentioned though it was — noting that it was the media that had erroneously given him the impression that Lunar New Year was the same as Chinese New Year. However, he’s hardly the first and only person who didn’t make the distinction.
I could forgive my friend for his unintentional microaggression, but it makes my blood boil when I see numerous articles via reputable publications seemingly use the terms Lunar New Year and Chinese New Year interchangeably. In one CNN article, the site refers to Lunar New Year as “the most important holiday in the Chinese zodiac calendar” — which is true, but it fails to mention other cultures that celebrate Lunar New Year — while a separate article on CNBC appears to claim that Lunar New Year is a synonym for Chinese New Year and that the annual holiday is widely celebrated throughout Asia. This language implies that other Asian countries also celebrate Chinese New Year, which is a major misconception.
Chinese New Year is actually only one festival under the umbrella term of Lunar New Year, which is a festival that occurs on the first day of a new year in the lunisolar calendar, a calendar that is based on the cycles of the moon’s phases and the sun’s position. While Lunar New Year is widely celebrated in Asia, Chinese New Year is specific to Chinese culture.
Chinese people are the largest population that celebrates Lunar New Year, meaning all the people who observe Chinese New Year celebrate Lunar New Year, but not vice versa. In contexts outside of China, referring to Lunar New Year as Chinese New Year can come off as insensitive and offensive because it ignores other cultures, all of which have their own unique traditions, beliefs, and celebrations.
Chinese New Year Vs. Lunar New Year: What's The Difference?
The Lunar New Year is traditionally a time for food, festivities, and family gatherings. It is celebrated in many countries, including China, Vietnam, Korea, Singapore, and Malaysia. Across these countries, some traditions are shared, while others are unique to each country’s cultural identity. According to USA Today, over 1.5 billion people celebrate Lunar New Year around the world; there is currently no distinction as to how many of those are specific to the individual cultures.
The most common tradition during Lunar New Year across countries is to prepare offerings to the altars as a form of worship to ancestors and deceased family members. People celebrating Lunar New Year also give out special envelopes filled with money (“lucky money”) to children as a symbol of well wishes. However, each Asian country has a different take on the holiday based on their own cultural backgrounds. Below are some of the distinctive Lunar New Year legends and traditions that I have learned through my research, as well as from my personal experiences growing up in Vietnam, and from locals during my travels throughout Asia.
Keep in mind that these examples are only a selection highlighting some of the differences in Lunar New Year traditions, and it’s not comprehensive of all the different countries that celebrate this holiday.
1. In China: Chinese New Year (春节)
In China, Lunar New Year is called "Chūnjié"(chwnn-jyeah) or Spring Festival. Legend says that the Nian ("Year") monster attacked villagers at the beginning of every new year. Because the monster was afraid of loud noises, bright lights, and the color red, people used firecrackers and red decorations to chase it away.
In modern times, Chinese people celebrate Lunar New Year by hanging up red paper decorated with calligraphy art, lighting red lanterns, and watching fireworks. Eating certain dishes during Chinese New Year is traditionally believed to bring luck for the new year. For example, dumplings symbolize wealth, sweet rice balls are symbolic of a tight-knit family, and longevity noodles represent long life expectancy.
2. In Vietnam: Vietnamese New Year (Tết nguyên đán)
As someone who grew up in Vietnam, Vietnam’s Lunar New Year — or Tết nguyên đán (/tət ŋwən dǎə̌n/) — is the celebration I’m most familiar with. Traditionally, it was an occasion for farmers to express gratitude to nature gods and pray for abundant crops next year. “Banh chung” (a sticky rice cake wrapped in banana leaf with pork and mung bean filling) was invented as a token of appreciation, and it has become a must-have dish during Vietnamese New Year today.
One of the most important Vietnamese New Year traditions is to choose the first visitor to the house, as this person’s zodiac sign is believed to affect the host family's fortune for the new year. In the event the hosts cannot invite an acquaintance with a promising zodiac sign, they will leave the house before midnight on Lunar New Year's Eve and return afterward to ensure that the first visitor is not undesirable.
3. In Korea: Korean New Year (설날)
In South Korea, Lunar New Year is called Seollal (/Sŏllal/). Korean New Year traditions include eating rice-cake soup (symbolizing good health) and making "sebae," a ritual bow. Young children wear “hanbok” (traditional clothing) and bow deeply by kneeling and folding their hands to wish the elders a joyful new year. After receiving “sebae,” the elders will say their wishes and reward the children with lucky money.
When Is Lunar New Year 2023?
The first day of the Lunar New Year falls on a different date every lunar calendar year, but it generally occurs between mid-January and late February. In 2023, the Lunar New Year will take place on Sunday, Jan. 22.
What Is The 2023 Animal Zodiac Sign?
In most Asian countries, each year is associated with a zodiac sign, which is believed to have an influence on the personalities of the people born under it, as well as their careers, love lives, and fortunes. Although the zodiac animals differ slightly from country to country, most Asian countries will celebrate 2023 as the Year of the Rabbit. The zodiac cycle repeats every 12 years, so the last year of the Rabbit was 2011 and the next will be 2035. People born in the Year of the Rabbit are believed to be the luckiest in the zodiac and are known for being witty, diplomatic, and artistic. Some famous people born in the Year of the Rabbit are Lil Nas X (1999), Jeff Bezos (1964), Kate Winslet (1975), and Lisa Kudrow (1963).
- Britannica: “Ancient and religious calendar systems”
- Britannica: “Chinese New Year”
- Luxury under Budget: “20 Vietnamese New Year Traditions: How to Celebrate Tet”
- Asia Society: “Seollal, Korean New Year”
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