February 12th marked the beginning of Lunar New Year, the first new moon of the Chinese lunisolar calendar, kicking off a celebration marked by more than 1.5 billion people across the globe, and that in China will culminate in the Lantern Festival on February 26th, the first full moon.
Though commonly called Chinese New Year in North America, largely due to the presence of Chinatowns in larger metropolitan areas such as Vancouver, San Francisco, and Mexico City, the Lunar New Year has been observed for centuries in countries throughout Asia such as Korea (설날 seollal) and Vietnam (Tết Nguyên Đán) and, through indirect transmission, Tibet (ལོ་གསར losar), and Mongolia (Цагаан сар tsagaan sar).
Though COVID-19 is keeping large gatherings and celebrations to a smaller scale for the second year in a row, the holiday is still being observed in various ways around the world.
Here are a few facts you may not have known about lunisolar new year celebrations, in China and beyond:
- The Chinese zodiac consists of twelve animals, called the Twelve Earthly Branches (which represent the twelve years of the planet Jupiter’s solar orbit), with this being the year of the ox. The Twelve Earthly Branches combine with the Ten Celestial Stems (based on the five primordial elements of earth, wood, fire, metal, and water in different combinations of yin and yang) to create a sexagenary (sixty year) cycle, making this the year of the Yin Metal Ox.
- During the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the Lunar New Year celebration was rebranded as the Spring Festival (春节 chūn jié) to signal a break with the “superstitions” of the past
- The Lunar New Year festival causes the world’s largest annual human migration, with approximately 200 million people in mainland China alone traveling long distances to celebrate the holiday season with loved ones
- February 12th to 14th was the TIbetan Losar festival, a three-day festival marked by housecleaning, cooking, religious observances, and family gatherings
- The Nisga’a, the indigenous people of what is now known as British Columbia, celebrate the new year based on their own lunisolar calendar. Called Hobiyee, this celebration falls within February or March on the Gregorian calendar and is marked by singing and dancing celebrating the waxing crescent moon, thought to predict the bounty of the new year’s harvest
- In China children, younger adults, and employees are given red envelopes with money to bring luck for the new year. These envelopes are called 紅包 hóngbāo, giving rise to the rhyming couplet 恭喜發財,紅包拿來 gōng xǐ fā cái, hóng bāo ná lái, “Happy New Year, hand over the red envelope”
No matter how you mark the end of one year and the beginning of another, may we all have a happy, healthy, and prosperous Year of the Yin Metal Ox.