Lunar New Year begins Jan. 22 — here are some things you may not know

Michelle Guerrero / The San Diego Union-Tribune
(Michelle Guerrero / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Lunar New Year is a celebration of the beginning of a new year on the lunar calendar for many Asian cultures.


Lion dances, fireworks and the color red are some of the most visible signs of the celebration of the Lunar New Year. But it’s about much more than that.

Tied to the changing of the lunar calendar, it’s also a celebration of the arrival of spring. It’s a time for Chinese, Vietnamese and other Asian cultures who commemorate it to come together with family and friends, wash away the past year and bring in new opportunities.

For those following the Chinese zodiac, or similar zodiacs in other cultures, Lunar New Year 2023 means ringing in the Year of the Rabbit on Sunday, Jan. 22. For the Vietnamese zodiac, 2023 is the Year of the Cat.

More than 1 billion people worldwide will celebrate Lunar New Year over multiple days, with traditions varying throughout the world and across the United States.


What is the origin of Lunar New Year?

Little lion dancers from the Hoa Nghien Lion Dance troupe get ready to perform in January 2022.
(Sydney Tran Photography)

Lunar New Year — also known as Spring Festival in China, Seollal in South Korea and Tet in Vietnam — is filled with various stories and legends.

According to the Timothy S.Y. Lam Museum of Anthropology, the most popular origin story is that a mythical beast ate crops, livestock and people on the eve of Lunar New Year. Folklore says a wise old man realized the beast was afraid of loud noises and the color red. People then put red scrolls on windows and red lanterns in front of their homes to stop the beast from coming inside. Now, fireworks and red are part of the Lunar New Year festivities.


Who celebrates Lunar New Year?

Young dancers from the San Diego Hua Xia Chinese School perform artistic ribbon and fan dances.
(Criselda Yee)

It is one of the most important holidays in China and is celebrated across multiple countries in Asia, such as Singapore, Brunei, Vietnam and South Korea. It also is celebrated in cities around the world.


What do the Year of the Rabbit and Year of the Cat represent?

In Chinese culture, people born in the Year of the Rabbit are said to have characteristics of being elegant, kind and responsible.

In Vietnamese culture, the Year of the Cat is said to bring attentiveness, compassion and sensitivity.


Why does this year have two animals?

Members of the Southern Sea Lion and Dragon Dance troupe perform at the San Diego Tet Festival in Mira Mesa in 2022.
Members of the Southern Sea Lion and Dragon Dance troupe perform at the San Diego Tet Festival at Mira Mesa Community Park in 2022.
(Sydney Tran Photography)

The Chinese zodiac calendar has 12 animals coinciding with the Lunar New Year that rotate. In Vietnam, the rabbit is replaced by the cat, and there are various explanations.

The most widely known mythology of the Chinese zodiac is of a great race that took place thousands of years ago. The jade emperor — a Chinese ruler and god — called for a race among animals. The first 12 to reach him would be proclaimed on the calendar, in order of how they finished.

On the way to him, the animals would have to cross a river. The cat and the rat were not good swimmers, so each hitched a ride on the ox, since it was strong and kind. But the rat pushed the cat into the water right before they reached the other side of the river.

The rat reached the jade emperor first, the ox second, and the cat never made it. The Vietnamese zodiac has the cat instead of the rabbit because the ancient word for rabbit, “mao,” sounds like a cat’s meow, according to the San Diego Tet Festival.


What are the customary rituals and traditions of Lunar New Year?

A woman looks at lanterns at the traditional Lunar New Year Tet market in the old quarter of Hanoi, Vietnam, in 2022.
A woman looks at lanterns at the traditional Lunar New Year Tet market in the old quarter of Hanoi, Vietnam, in January 2022.
(Hau Dinh / Associated Press)

Lunar New Year celebrations vary, depending where you celebrate. There are public festivals and parades, but many traditions occur at home or with family gatherings.

A common practice is to clean the house and decorate doors and windows with red paper cuttings and other expressions of good fortune. Many celebrate with a dinner on Lunar New Year’s Eve with a gathering and reunion of family and friends. An entire fish often is served to represent abundance and good luck for the entire year. Food is a major aspect of celebrating Lunar New Year.

Fireworks also are part of the Lunar New Year celebration, and some families hand out red envelopes filled with money, which symbolizes good fortune and wishes for the year ahead.

To see a list of Lunar New Year celebrations in the San Diego area, go to ◆