Lunar New Year, celebrated by many East Asian countries, is an occasion honoring a fresh start based on the moon cycle. Here, an expert walks us through her rituals and traditions—from haircuts to dumplings—along with ways everyone can help ring in the holiday with a powerful roar.
By Jennifer Chen
Lunar New Year is a special holiday that I look forward to every year. And I love sharing what my traditions mean with non-Asian folks to both demystify this amazing annual festival and help them understand what it really represents. I usually invite my non-Asian friends over to join in our big New Year’s Eve feast, and I spend time showing the kids at my twins’ schools how to make dumplings, because sharing my culture is important to me. Plus, it’s great having two New Years to celebrate!
Many people call the holiday Chinese New Year, but that’s incorrect, since it is also celebrated in many other Asian countries (in Vietnam, it’s Têt, and Losar in Tibet). Instead, I use the more universal moniker, “Lunar New Year.” The festivities begin with the new moon, which this year falls on February 1, and culminates with the full moon on February 15. Each Lunar New Year is matched with one of the 12 zodiac animals, and this is the Year of the Tiger—the tiger being a symbol of power, independence, and creativity.
The legend behind Lunar New Year is that every year the “Nián” (“year”) monster came to rampage through villages. Nián was seen as bad luck, and so villagers used firecrackers to scare away the monster. They also hid in their homes and prepared feasts as an offering to ancestors and gods. Red signifies good luck and happiness and is also thought to scare away the nasty Nián, so during Lunar New Year, homes are decorated with red and gold paper poems and lanterns. Nowadays, the 15-day celebration includes fireworks and red dragon costumes (to symbolically chase away the Nián monster), and it kicks off on New Year’s Eve with a family feast dedicated to health, abundance, and happiness.
As a kid, one of my favorite parts about the celebration was the tradition of elders giving children money for the new year. I loved getting (and now giving) red envelopes, decorated with shiny gold Chinese characters, stuffed with money. My grandmother reused the same envelope every year—tucking in a crisp $20 bill and immediately asking for the envelope back once I had opened it. Now, I love picking out red Hello Kitty envelopes for my kids, featuring the zodiac animal for the new year. On the last day of January, I’ll fill their envelopes with stickers, candy, and a little bit of money when we have a celebration of our own.
Read on for some of the other rituals and traditions that make up my Lunar New Year celebration.
Two weeks before New Year’s Eve
This is the time to prep for the new year, and I follow some of the traditional rules for doing so. I clean my house. Pay my bills. Get a haircut. Make amends and resolve fights. It’s important I get it all done before New Year’s Eve—I can’t sweep my space between January 31 and the end of Lunar New Year (February 15), because it’s believed I might be sweeping away good luck. And if I forget to book an appointment with my stylist in January, I’ll wait till after the 15th for that trim, and won’t use scissors before then, either—both represent cutting ties to family. We also hang red paper poems and lanterns embellished with gold Chinese characters like “fú” (good fortune) as decoration around our home.
On New Year’s Eve
This is the big celebration. We fill red envelopes with money. We have a celebratory dinner made up of symbolic foods. In my house, we shout, “Xīn Nián Kuài Lè!” (Happy New Year!) and my kids open their red envelopes. Here’s to a long life full of abundance and health!
New Year’s Eve Feast
Not all Asian cultures celebrate Lunar New Year like I do as a Taiwanese American. Some people might eat different dishes, decorate with different characters, or have other customs, but the sentiment is the same—bringing together friends and family to welcome a new year with joy, luck, and wealth.
Dumplings: These symbolize wealth because their shape looks similar to ancient gold coins.
Long Noodles: Long noodles are eaten for a long life.
Tofu: Tofu is served for happiness and good fortune.
Mushrooms: Mushrooms are served for blessings.
Fish: Steamed fish is eaten for abundance because the Chinese word for fish (yú) has the same pronunciation as the word for “surplus.”
Nián gāo: For dessert, nián gāo, a glutinous sweet rice cake, is said to make each year sweeter and better than the last.
Mandarin Oranges: Mandarins are regularly given as gifts and eaten during Lunar New Year because they represent good luck and abundance.
Making dumplings is typically a family tradition. In my house, we gather around the kitchen counter, set out our dumpling wrappers, and place bowls of water to seal our dumplings. It’s a time of togetherness and joy. After steaming, we eat them fresh from the steamer basket. My family and I don’t eat meat, so we’re excited to make Terry Hope Romero’s recipe this Lunar New Year (opposite page), especially since tofu and mushrooms represent happiness and good blessings.
From décor to dishes, here are my favorite online destinations to prepare for Lunar New Year:
I love to visit the 50-year-old, family-owned Pearl River Mart (pearlriver.com) in N.Y.C. or shop online to buy red envelopes, lanterns, décor, and more.
Wonton in a Million (wontoninamillion.com) sells super cute Lunar New Year stickers and washi tape.
Taiwanese chef George Lee has great plant-based takes on classic dishes on his site Chez Jorge (chejorge.com.) For Lunar New Year, try his Taiwanese sticky rice, black sesame tang yuan, or dan dan noodles.
New Year Veggie Dumplings by Terry Hope Romero
Makes about 3 dozen dumplings
1 12 oz. package of vegan
wonton or gyoza wrappers*
10 oz. fresh spinach, choy sum, green pea shoots, or a mix of cooking greens
2 ounces dry mung bean noodles
1/4 cup dried wood ear mushrooms
1/2 pound extra-firm tofu, squeezed
to remove excess liquid
1 Tbsp. cornstarch
2 scallions, finely chopped
1 Tbsp. minced fresh ginger
1 Tbsp. soy sauce
1/2 tsp. toasted sesame oil
Soy Sesame Dipping Sauce
1/4 cup soy sauce
1 Tbsp. rice vinegar
1 tsp. brown sugar
1 tsp. toasted sesame seeds
1/2 tsp. toasted sesame oil
Hot chili oil or favorite hot sauce
1. In separate small bowls cover the mung bean noodles and wood ear mushrooms with boiling water. Set aside for 10 minutes until both are soft and plump; drain, cool, then chop the noodles into pieces about 1-inch long. Finely chop the mushrooms and transfer both to a large mixing bowl.
2. While the noodles are soaking, wash the greens. Set up a large steamer and steam until bright green and tender, about 2-3 minutes. Remove from the steamer and, when cool, squeeze the greens to remove as much excess water as possible. Chop and add to the mixing bowl. Crumble tofu into the bowl and add scallions, ginger, soy sauce, and sesame oil. Mix thoroughly. Use immediately or cover and keep refrigerated for up to 24 hours.
3. To shape dumplings, place a wonton skin on a dry work surface. Scoop 1 heaping tablespoon of firmly packed filling into the center. Dip your finger in cold water, dab along the edges of the wonton skin, fold over into a triangle (or half-moon) and firmly press edges together to seal. Repeat with the remaining filling (some wonton skins will remain) and keep uncooked dumplings** covered with a clean kitchen towel. Arrange dumplings in a steamer basket lined with cabbage or lettuce leaves, leave 1/2 inch of space between dumplings. Brush tops with vegetable oil and steam for 8-10 minutes or until firm and skins are slightly translucent.
4. While the dumplings are cooking, prepare the dipping sauce by combining all
the sauce ingredients; serve dumplings hot with dipping sauce and your
favorite hot sauce.
*Wonton wrappers are typically square while gyoza wrappers are round and delicate. If wrappers are frozen, thaw overnight in the refrigerator. Bring thawed (or refrigerated) wrappers to room temperature before using.
**Freshly made dumplings freeze beautifully. If you won’t be eating all of them immediately, arrange uncooked dumplings on a cookie sheet lined with wax paper. Freeze unti firm and store in tightly sealed bags in the freezer. Do not thaw before cooking.
Dos And Don’ts For Non-Asians Interested in Participating in Lunar New Year
For non-Asian folks, celebrating an Asian holiday can feel odd or appropriative. So here are some ways to join in the festivities respectfully.
- Clean your house.
- Schedule a haircut.
- Make your own dumplings, or order takeout from a local restaurant (they need your support now more than ever!).
- Check out a Lunar New Year parade.
- Wear a red qipao (dress) and put chopsticks in your hair. Ever.
- Assume everyone says “Gong Hei Fat Choy,” (Cantonese for Happy New Year). Instead, just say “Happy New Year.”
- Feel shy about asking an Asian friend about their New Year traditions.
- Host a Lunar New Year party without any Asian people attending.
- Say the food we eat is weird or smells.
Art Director/Prop Stylist: Kim Pirring; Props: Kiki’s Corner; Photo Assistant: Anthony Doan
Photos by Shirley Yu
last photo by //www.pexels.com/@rodnae-prod?utm_content=attributionCopyText&utm_medium=referral&;utm_source=pexels">RODNAE Productions from Pexels
This article originally appeared in BUST's Winter 2021/2022 print edition. Subscribe today!
Jennifer Chen is a Los Angeles-based freelance journalist who writes for Bust, O: The Oprah Magazine, Real Simple, Good Housekeeping, and Brit + Co. Jennifer is raising twin feminists with her TV writer husband and her adopted pug Chewbacca Tofu, and she documents her vegan eating adventures on Instagram @jchenwriter. Follow her at jchenwriter.com and on Twitter @jchenwriter.