Commonly signified by the appearance of brightly colored lanterns and red envelopes, festivities surrounding Lunar New Year are often compared to Western celebrations of the New Year held on January 1. Lunar New Year, sometimes called the Spring Festival in parts of China, possesses its own unique traditions, myths, and beliefs, varying from country to country as all look forward to the start of a new lunar cycle.
In 2020, the final Saturday of January marks the start of the Lunar New Year, with people throughout the world welcoming the Year of the Rat. The Rat is the first in the 12-year cycle of the Chinese zodiac and is commonly associated with water and the winter season. As with the other 11 animals in the Chinese zodiac, the concept of the “Year of the Rat” is linked to particular lucky numbers, colors, and similarities among those born in those years. In 2020, keep an eye out for the numbers 2, 3, 6, and 8; all of which are believed to be lucky, while 4, 5, and 9 should be avoided. Similarly, gold, green, and blue are the most auspicious colors this year, while yellow and brown are believed to bring bad luck.
The Chinese zodiac itself is tied to a popular story about a competition held by the Jade Emperor. A representation of the first god in Chinese culture, myth, and traditional religions, the Jade Emperor is also known as “Heavenly Grandfather”, “Heavenly Duke”, and the “Great Emperor of Jade”. According to some versions of the myth, people in the past had a different concept of time. The Heavenly Duke thought of a brilliant solution - people had close ties with animals. What would be better to name animals after the years?
But this solution yielded a new question: With so many animals in the world, how should the Jade Emperor select these new symbols for time? To resolve this, he decided to host a river crossing competition on his birthday and the fastest 12 animals would be chosen as the 12 within the Chinese zodiac.
Interestingly, the cat asked the rat for a wake-up call to arrive at the competition on time; however, being fearful of the cat’s chances for victory, the rat did not wake the cat. The rat, though eventually crowned champion at the competition, remained fearful of the cat’s revenge. From then on, the rat always fled from the cat - leading to their eternal “cat and mouse” game. Upon the start of the competition, the servants hastily chose the pig as the cat’s replacement and the animals then fell into the zodiac according to the Jade Emperor’s judgement.
Chinese people throughout the world celebrate the arrival of a new year in a variety of ways - gathering with family and friends, watching traditional dances or firework shows or praying at temples. The holiday season surrounding the New Year has been viewed as the “world’s largest human migration” due to the mass travel as people return home to celebrate with their families.
One of the most recognizable signs of Lunar New Year are the scarlet decorations in every home and neighborhood; these are placed to draw good fortune and wealth to the home in the coming year while warding off a lion-like monster called Nian, who according to myth fears the color red. Red is also the color of envelopes given from elders to children and unmarried adults, called lai see; these gifts illustrate the importance of sharing wealth and prosperity in the new year with those you love. Food is where celebrations of the Lunar New Year tend to vary the most, with some of the luckiest foods being dumplings, whole fish or chicken, spring rolls, and nian gao or “New Year’s cake”. Each food represents a key wish or desire for the new year, with whole chickens representing family unity and dumplings representing wealth due to their similarity in appearance to Chinese gold ingots.
Gong xi fa cai (Mandarin) and gong hei fat choy (Cantonese) to all! Learn more about the Year of the Rat with this video.