Lunar New Year traditions you might not have known about

By Rebecca W. Lee
Northwest Asian Weekly

There are many ethnicities that celebrate the Lunar New Year, not just the Chinese and Vietnamese.

Koreans, Tibetans, and Mongolians also celebrate the New Year, which is the passing of the winter season and the beginning of the spring season. Each of these groups has different customs and traditions that have been practiced for hundreds of years.

Korea

Hanboks

Seol-nal or Eum-ryeok Seollal is the name for the Korean New Year. Koreans often celebrate two New Years, one based on the Gregorian calendar and one on the day of the second new moon after the winter solstice. Seol-nal lasts three days and is considered the most important holiday of the year.

Greeting: Children go up to their elders and perform a traditional bow and say ‘saehae bok man-hi ba-deu saeyo,’ which means they hope for their elders to receive many blessings in the New Year.

Children are allowed only one deep bow. Bowing more than once is usually for the dead.

Money: As do Chinese and Vietnamese, Korean elders give children money. This is to wish them luck and wisdom for the coming year.  The money has to be very crisp.

Clothing: Koreans dress up in a hanbok, which is a traditional dress. It has vibrant colors and simple lines without pockets. The colors on a hanbok can represent the social class of the individual wearing it.

Tteokguk

Food: Tteokguk is a traditional dish consisting of broth and thinly-sliced rice cakes. It is believed to grant luck for the coming year and for people to gain an additional year of life. It is usually eaten with cooked eggs, marinated meat, and gim, which is similar to nori (seaweed).

Travel: Many Koreans head toward the east coast provinces to see the first rays of sunlight for the New Year. It is believed that the mind and spirit will be refreshed by watching the sun rise.

Tibet

Losar is the Tibetan New Year. The Tibetan word is made up of lo, which is ‘year,’ and sar, which stands for ‘new’ or ‘fresh.’ Losar is the most important holiday in Tibet. Losar lasts for about two weeks. The last three days comprise the main celebration. This holiday is celebrated in Nepal and India as well.

Possible hidden ingredients in guthuk

Food: Tibetans eat a special dumpling soup called guthuk. Nine is a number of good fortune, so everything in the soup has to be in nines, including the ingredients and bowls. Dumplings are given out with hidden ingredients inside, such as chilies, salt, wood, wool, rice, and coal. People find out what their New Year fortune is by checking what hidden ingredients they receive.

White is considered to be good luck at this time. If a person receives a white-colored ingredient, he or she will be in good standing for the year. A piece of coal signifies that one has a ‘black heart’ or is malicious. Chili means that a person is talkative or rough-spoken. Wool means a person is lazy.

Ceremony/offering: Much incense offered to satisfy local spirits, deities, and protectors. It is believed that these offerings will bless the family for the year.

Protection: The night before Losar, family members finish their meal and dump what is left in their bowls into a wok, as well as some fingernails, old clothing, and garbage. Then, late at night, they take the wok out into the middle of the road. This is called a lue. This is performed to get rid of all evil forces at the start of a New Year.

Mongolia

Ul boov

Tsagaan Sar is the Buryat (an ethnic minority in Siberia) and Mongolian New Year.

Although the Mongolian New Year follows the same calendar as that of all the other countries that celebrate the Lunar New Year, the cultural traditions follow more closely those of the Tibetan New Year. The Mongolian New Year, also known as the White Moon holiday, is celebrated two months after the first new moon.

Greeting: On the day of the New Year, children honor their senior relatives. The younger generation greets the elders by extending their arms with the palms up and supporting the elder’s arms from underneath.  They then kiss twice, once on each cheek.

A cup of milk is placed in the right hand on blue silk, which is called khadag. This is passed around to everyone. Gifts are also exchanged.

Food: Since this holiday is also called the white month, foods that are white, such as rice, dumplings, and dairy products, are seen as spiritually clean. A traditional food is ul boov,  a traditional Mongolian biscuit layered on a big plate. The number of layers have to be odd and is determined by age.

Grandparents get seven layers, parents get five, and younger couples get three.

Vietnam

Dice from the game bau cua ca cop

Tet Nguyen Dan, or Vietnamese Lunar New Year, is the most important and popular holiday in Vietnam. It marks the arrival of spring. Tet is officially celebrated for three days, but festivities can continue for weeks.

Lion dances: In Vietnamese culture, lion dancers are considered mythical creatures. The dance includes extra performers, each one called ong dia, or ‘Earth god.’ They lead the lions in the performance to ward off evil spirits.

Money: Just like the Chinese, the Vietnamese hand out red envelopes. Parents, family, and friends who are married give money to unmarried people. The money envelopes symbolize future blessing for those who are unmarried. The amount of money is always an even number, as odd amounts are given out for funerals.

Gambling: Gambling is very common, and it represents wealth, fortune, and leisurely spending. It is a projection of what the rest of the year will be like financially. The most popular games include a dice game called bau cua ca cop.

Ancestor veneration: In Vietnamese culture, veneration involves preparing food, gathering the family members, and going to temple to commune with ancestors.

China

The Chinese New Year is also known as the Spring Festival. This establishes the beginning of the season. At the end of the celebration is the beginning of the Lantern Festival. The celebration lasts 15 days.

Cleaning: Houses need to be clean the day before the New Year’s day. On New Year’s eve, all cleaning materials should be put away. No cleaning should be done on New Year’s day for fear of sweeping away all the good fortune. The day after New Year’s, individuals start at the door and sweep or vacuum toward the middle of the room. The rubbish is put in the corner of the room and is not taken out until the fifth day. Also, all dirt and trash should be taken out the back door.

Fireworks: The Chinese, just like the Vietnamese, use firecrackers to fight away evil spirits. In Chinese legend, the practice started with the fight against Nian, a mystical beast that would come out on the first day of the New Year and destroy all crops, livestock, and villagers. The villagers decided that they would fight back with firecrackers, brightly colored clothing, and lion dancers with their gongs.

Jiao zi

Food: The amount of food is important during the Chinese New Year. The tradition involves having six, eight, or nine dishes on the table. People stay away from the number four or anything less than six dishes.  Food commonly eaten includes fish, which represents surplus for the year. A whole chicken represents prosperity. Dumplings, or jiao zi, represent gold ingots. Jai, stir-fried vegetables, eaten on New Year’s eve represents good fortune.

Colors: Legend has it that the Nian monster would be repelled by children wearing bright red clothing. It is believed that everyone should wear new red clothes to bring protection and luck for the upcoming year. White is never worn during the Chinese New Year’s celebration because it represents mourning, bad health, and misfortune. ♦

Rebecca W. Lee can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

3 Responses to “Lunar New Year traditions you might not have known about”

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  1. […] which means it’s time for many with Asian heritage and connections to greet the new year in traditional ways. Of course, the most traditional way to celebrate any Asian holiday is to eat—and everyone can […]

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