Ringing in the Lunar New Year: Traditions, Treats, and How You, Too, Can Celebrate!

When many people think of the New Year, they likely think of the festivities surrounding the eve of December 31st and the celebratory countdown to January 1st. Images of impressive fireworks displays overhead, a scrumptious spread of food and desserts, plus the good times with friends and family are called to mind. And when January 2nd arrives, it’s time to take those happy memories and head into what is hoped to be a happy, healthy, prosperous new year.

But the celebration doesn’t technically have to end.

Often, just a few weeks later, there’s Chinese New Year (or the Lunar New Year) that many ring in around the world. In this post, we’ll provide a brief explanation of the Lunar New Year, with focus specifically on Chinese New Year, plus provide examples of how it’s different—and, in some cases, similar—to the January 1st holiday; how people celebrate it here in Hawai`i; and how you, too, can celebrate at home to keep the new-year cheer going!

New Moon, New Year

The Lunar New Year marks the start of the (lunar) calendar year in which the months are based on the cycles of the moon. Many countries in East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, and others celebrate this momentous occasion. In Chinese culture it’s often referred to as the Spring Festival, which lasts for several days, with many of the days reserved for specific customs and many involving family members (from the eldest to the youngest), friends, and relatives.

The first day, for example, involves:

  • Fireworks
  • Lion (costume) dances
  • The giving of Mandarin oranges (symbolic of wealth and luck) to others
  • Adult family members handing red envelopes (known as lai see) containing cash to younger family members (children and teenagers) – Cash amounts in even numbers, such as those including the number eight, representing prosperity and are seen as good luck, while amounts in odd numbers, the number four, or an empty red envelope are considered bad luck.

The 15th day is the Lantern Festival, which marks the conclusion of the Chinese New Year celebrations. Streets are lined with these brilliant—and brilliantly designed—lantern decorations, often in the color red. Also during this event, children try to solve riddles placed on the sides of the lanterns.

Food plays a part as well. A dessert soup called tangyuan or yuanxiao, consisting of glutinous rice balls often with a sweet filling, is served in a bowl and consumed on the day. The spherical shape of the food and the container is traditionally seen as symbolic of familial harmony in the coming New Year.

The Same, but Different

When it comes to celebrating another New Year, there are similarities and differences between the Lunar New Year and the January 1st New Year. In addition to most of the ones mentioned above, here are a couple more distinctive differences between the holidays:

When to Ring It In: It all depends on the calendar. Certain cultures follow the lunar calendar based on the moon cycles, while others follow the solar calendar. The most commonly used solar calendar is the Gregorian calendar, divided into 12 months: January through December. Chinese New Year celebration dates are based on the lunisolar calendar, which incorporates both lunar and solar phases. Chinese New Year begins on the day of the new moon, which, using the Gregorian calendar, can appear between January 21 and February 20, thus the reason for Chinese New Year not beginning on exactly the same date every year. In 2022, for example, it begins on February 1st, but in 2023 it will begin on January 22nd.

Sweet Gifts: Dessert treats are handed out amongst friends and relatives, particularly oranges, chocolates, and candies wrapped in red paper as signs of good luck. Goodies, such as dried fruit and vegetables and chocolate coins, are sometimes presented in elaborate lacquer gift boxes.

Here are some of the similarities:

Food and Family: With a New Year’s Eve party on December 31st, food to share amongst family and friends is pretty much a given. Depending on the host, maybe hors d’oeuvres or other easy-to-eat finger foods might be served, perhaps even glasses of sparkling wine, cidar, or another type of libation to enjoy when the clock strikes midnight. In Chinese culture, there’s a Reunion Dinner, which is held on the eve of the Lunar New Year, often at the residence of a senior family member. (This could be seen as something similar to a Thanksgiving feast.) It often includes chicken, pork, and fish or other types of seafood. In parts of China, eating dumplings is also part of this event.

Fireworks: It almost wouldn’t be a New Year’s celebration without watching an awesome fireworks display. Nowadays, it’s fairly commonplace for cities and communities around the world to put on spectacular fireworks shows, often choreographed to a soundtrack that can be listened to on a radio station, for a perfect pairing of sights and sounds. News networks will often show snippets of stellar presentations in Sydney, Australia, as well as festivities throughout Europe and, of course, the iconic “ball drop” in Times Square in New York City, to name a few. On a much smaller scale, you may have seen in your own neighborhoods, or perhaps right in your own driveway, children waving golden sparklers.

But long before sparklers and stellar fireworks shows, references to fireworks can be found in Chinese mythology. According to an ancient tale, the color red and loud noises were used to ward off a (supernatural) threat to a village and its residents. There are also references in books and poetry between the 400s and 1000s, mentioning “firing bamboo,” possibly indicating the use of fireworks. In the Tang and Song dynasties, gun powder was added to bamboo poles and ignited, creating an even louder effect 

The Lunar New Year Meets Aloha

With Hawai`i being known, in part, for its multicultural diversity, it’s no surprise that the Lunar New Year is celebrated throughout the Islands. Here is a list of some of the ways the Lunar New Year meets Aloha. Although many public festivities may be postponed this year, traditionally speaking, Hawai`i loves the Lunar New Year. For example:

  • Many shopping centers, including Ala Moana Center in Honolulu, bring in lion-costume dancers to visit the stores and entertain shoppers. In recent years, there’s even a lion-dance performance at the Center’s main stage area that’s quite elaborate, with lion characters jumping onto on-stage pillars! Also popular: the Chinese calligraphy presentation. The 2022 presentation is now sold out, but check out these highlight-reel videos from years past, posted by Ala Moana Center.
  • Our friends at Sig Zane Designs launched this handsome (and sought-after) limited-edition Yang Black Tiger Aloha Shirt, made especially for the special occasion. (And be sure to read the incredibly insightful design description.) We also look forward to the lion dance that takes place in front of the Sig Zane store. Not only can you “feed the lion” the lai see offering, but the lion will, in return, shred cabbage as a sign of spreading wealth and prosperity.
  • Chinese cultural centers and community groups, such as the Chinese Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii, have hosted events involving food booths, craft fairs, and live performances.
  • Traditional food and dishes, such as jin dui (sesame balls), gao (a sticky mochi cake, sprinkled with sesame seeds and topped with a red date), jai (a vegetarian stew), and candied fruits are popular. These items can be pre-ordered from local Chinese eateries for (drive-thru) pickup. (In your own community, it’s probably best to call first to verify availability.) Here’s an informative report from KHON2, out of Honolulu, featuring an interview with a representative from the community group, Chinatown808, on how folks can still support local businesses amid pandemic protocols. (Note: The Chinatown808 food orders for 2022 have sold out.)

Here at Big Island Candies, we recently released our new, limited-edition Almond Shortbread, inspired by the Almond Cookie that’s especially enjoyed during the Chinese Lunar New Year. Those classic cookies are circular in shape, and feature a piece—or sometimes a sliver—of almond. Our version is in the same shape as our signature shortbreads and features an edible red dot, similar to what appears on a version of the traditional almond cookie. The color red is symbolic in Chinese culture of good luck, good fortune, joy, happiness, vitality.

We created two Almond Shortbread varieties: one non-dipped and the other diagonally dipped in our creamy white coating. These individually wrapped cookies, appearing in some new gifts, will be great to share with those who bring you joy and happiness all year-round, wishing them much luck and prosperity throughout this upcoming Year of the Tiger.

Fun Fact: National Chinese Almond Cookie Day is April 9, but why wait until then? Enjoy these “good-fortune goodies” while supplies last! Check out our Almond Shortbread Combo Box and the assortments in our Good Fortune Gift Box and Lunar New Year Gift Basket—all available for a limited time only!

Celebrate the Date!

As a way to embrace—perhaps even educate younger family members—about this holiday, steeped in rich traditions, you too can celebrate the Lunar New Year at home with family:

  • Suggest everyone wear something red on the day.
  • Put out a bowl of Mandarin oranges.
  • Buy some red envelopes and insert cash/fresh bills for the children in your family. (See the traditional rules above as far as what amount variation to give.)
  • Assemble a small gift box of dried candied fruit, such as pineapple and coconut.
  • Hang decorative red paper lanterns.
  • Give the kids fun riddles to try and solve.
  • If you have a local Chinese restaurant that you love, call ahead and pre-order takeout dishes for dinner. Specifically ask if they are making anything special for the Lunar New Year, such as a vegetarian stew or some of the (sesame) desserts mentioned earlier.
  • After dinner, head to YouTube and search for “Chinese lion dances” to watch artistic and energetic performances from around the world.

We certainly hope you and your loved ones have a happy, healthy, prosperous (Lunar) New Year!

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