Kate's Global Kitchen

Kate Heyhoe  

Customs, Recipes, & Cookbooks
for Lunar New Year

by Kate Heyhoe


In many respects, the Chinese, Vietnamese and Koreans celebrate their New Year more like we celebrate Christmas. For about a month before the old year ends, and for the first two weeks of the new year, Asian families practice specific rituals, customs and celebrations in honor of the New Year, including gift-giving, decorations, worship, travel, parades, reunions and feasts.


Chinese Temple

These Asian cultures, which make up more than one-quarter of the world's population, observe the lunar calendar with a New Year that falls sometime in January or February.

Lunar New Year is known as Solnal in Korea, Tet in Vietnam, and Xin Nien in Mandarin.

Here are a few examples of the customs observed at Lunar New Year:

  • Businesses begin to prosper about a month before the New Year, selling gifts, festive decorations, special foods, and new clothes, along with new haircuts. Bakeries are jammed, but the real delicacies are homemade goodies, and grocery aisles are packed with both products and people.
  • The climax of the celebration period extends over two to three days, including New Year's Eve. This is the busiest travel time of year, as families by go train, plane and automobile to reunite with their loved ones.
  • In the weeks prior to the end of the year, houses are repainted and immaculately cleaned to sweep out the bad luck, making way for the good fortune of the New Year.
  • For the first two days of the New Year in China, no housework is done nor bathing. Both would sweep or wash away the New Year's good fortune. (Though a morning New Year's bath is part of Korean tradition.) Food is prepared beforehand as no knives or scissors may be used, lest they cut off the luck. Breaking things and falling down are bad omens to be seriously avoided.
  • Decorations include paper-cuts and symbols of happiness, prosperity, longevity and marriage harmony. Flowers fill the markets, reminders that this time is also known as the Spring Festival, with spring being the first season of the new year.
  • In China, firecrackers announce the passing of the old year at midnight on New Year's Eve (and were originally clattering bamboo sticks intended to scare away evil spirits). The end of the New Year celebrations is marked by the Lantern Festival, held on the fifteenth day of the year and the first full moon of the year. In Vietnam, the fifteenth day marks Ram Thang Gieng, a Buddhist sacred day of worship. Koreans call this day Taeborum, and believe that the luckiest will be the ones who see the full moon first; hence there is much competition to get to a view from the tallest mountains or highest points first.
  • Remembering and paying homage to the deceased is a large part of the New Year. The week before the New Year, children visit their parents and grandparents' graves, adding soil, pulling weeds and lighting incense to assist their spirits home for the holiday. Offerings of favorite foods are placed on home altars dedicated to family ancestors, and bowls and chopsticks are set for them at table during the New Year's Eve feast.
  • Temples are packed with people wishing to honor the gods. In the home, the Kitchen God (also known as the Hearth or Household God) is burned and dispatched to the Jade Emperor in heaven prior to the New Year, and the Kitchen God's lips are smeared with honey to say sweet things about the family.
  • In the United States, we eat black-eyed peas on New Year's Day for luck. In Korea, eating rice cake soup, known as tteokguk, is required before anyone can grow older. In China, New Year's Eve is a family feast, complete with dishes served because their names sound like the words for luck, fortune and other propitious words. In China, kumquats are especially popular, as their color and their name resemble "gold." In Vietnam, where New Year's is known as "Tet," the celebratory foods vary, but soups and stews are common.
  • Children, and in some cases young unmarried adults, receive red envelopes of lucky money, known as lei si, ang pow, or hong bau. Their relatives and elders pass the money on as gifts representing luck and wealth, but in earlier, leaner times the money in these packets was their only gift and meant to last the whole year. The amount given is always an even number, as odd numbers are bad luck.

San Francisco hosts its spectacularly lavish Lunar New Year parade annually, as do other Asian centers in the U.S. If you live in a city with a large Asian center, check with the Chamber of Commerce to see when the parade and festivities will be held locally.

Gung Hay Fat Choy! Xin Nien Kuai Le! (Cantonese)
Gong Xi Fa Cai! Sun Nin Fy Lok! (Mandarin)
"Wishing you prosperity! Happy New Year!"

Chuc Mu'ng Nam Mo'I
Happy New Year (Vietnamese)

Sehe Bokmanee Bateuseyo
(Say-hay boke mahn-he pah-du-say-oh)
Happy New Year (Korean)

Lunar New Year Recipes, Cookbooks & Columns


Lunar New Year Handbook


Kate's Global Kitchen for February 2002:
02/01/02     Super Bowl & Mardi Gras: Roux's of the Game
02/08/02     Horsing Around at Lunar New Year
02/15/02     Mascarpone Magic
02/22/02     Citrus: The Jewels of Winter

Copyright © 2007, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.

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