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Traditions, Superstitions & More: Everything To Know About The Lunar New Year

Feb. 12 2021, Updated 4:57 p.m. ET

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While we raise glasses of champagne and watch the ball drop in Times Square to celebrate a new year in the U.S., over 1 billion people, mostly in east Asian countries, don't acknowledge the beginning of the new chapter until the end of January, when the Lunar New Year occurs.

The holiday marks the first new moon of the lunarsolar calendar, which is based on the moon's cycles. It's what countries like China and Singapore go by, whereas most of the world sticks to the traditional Gregorian calendar. 

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When Is The Lunar New Year?

The first day of the 15-day event changes every year but almost always falls somewhere between January 20 and February 21. In 2021, the holiday kicked off on February 12, and when it ends, that marks the end of the first full moon.

Every year is also associated with an animal from the Chinese zodiac; this year, it's the Year of the Ox. The people born in the Year of the Ox are said to have the same traits as the animal, such as strength and reliability. Previous Years of the Ox include 1961, 1973, 1985, 1997 and 2009.

Is The Lunar Year The Same As The Chinese New Year?

According to Nancy Yao Maasbach, president of NYC's Museum of Chinese in America, the term "Chinese New Year" relates to the Americanized version of the holiday.

"It's been popularized because the largest segment of the Asian-American population in the United States is Chinese," she noted. "It's kind of like that old Friends joke, 'In China, they just call it 'food'; in Chinese, it's just the new year." 

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Traditions Of The Holiday

everything to know about the lunar new year

To kick off the holiday, "You start by doing certain ritual acts, such as a symbolic sweeping cleaning of the home in order to drive out any misfortune, bad luck or any bad influences," shared Smithsonian curator Jan Stuart, who explained that the celebration marks the idea "of starting fresh and anew."

Next, most people indulge in a large "reunion dinner" with the loved ones that they're not usually able to spend time with. Last year, CNN reported that 3 billion people traveled for the holiday. Of course, that number will dramatically decrease in 2021 due to the pandemic. Popular dishes include steamed fish, spring rolls, sticky rice balls (which stands for family unity) and a special cake that represents prosperity.

Revelers also make tributes to their late family members. "The ways of honoring the ancestors may be slightly different throughout China, but the basic idea is that you'e going to hang up paintings of your ancestors or display photographs of them and make offerings of incense and food," explained Stuart.

It's also custom to exchange red envelopes filled with money, which people once believed help ward off evil spirits.

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Holiday Superstitions

People don't cut their hair — or even the long noodles they may be eating — as using scissors is seen as a means of also cutting ties with your family. It's also said that those participating in the events don't shampoo their tresses or do laundry, as all of the good fortune would wash away down the pipes.

Others believe that buying shoes will bring bad luck, and you're also not supposed to talk about death or borrow money. You're also encouraged to wear red, which is supposed to bring about luck, and many decorate their homes in hues of red and gold.

Wrapping Up The Holiday

everything to know about the lunar new year

The conclusion of the holiday is one of the most exciting times, as there are countless parades and bright fireworks, both thought to scare off dark spirits. There's also a lantern festival. 

"Kids carry the lanterns around the neighborhood," shared YinYing Chen, a program staffer at the Freer and Sackler Galleries who was born in Taiwan. "Usually there is a lantern festival where people carry lanterns of different sizes. They are made out of papers, bamboo structures and glue."

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