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Diverse Cultures’ Celebrations of Lunar New Year

  • March 17, 2022

Celebrated across Asia and in Asian communities around the globe, the Lunar New Year, which fell on the first of February this year, ushered in the Year of the Tiger. The New Year prompts one of the world’s largest annual human migrations; hundreds of millions of people return to their hometowns to experience traditions and festivals with family. People gather to perform various rites and rituals with elders to guarantee a lucky year ahead. Here are some of the countries which celebrate Lunar New Year, along with several traditions that they partake in.  

South Korea

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In South Korea, Korean Lunar New Year, or Seollal, typically lasts three days. Koreans dress in traditional costumes, or hanbok, and children show their respect to elders with deep bows called seh bae. In turn, the children receive money and words of wisdom. For the grand meal, Koreans enjoy dishes like mandu (Korean dumplings) and ddeokguk (thinly sliced rice cake soup) as well as manduguk (dumpling soup), galbijjim (braised beef short ribs), japchae (glass noodles), and ddeok (rice cakes). Ddeokguk in particular carries special significance on Seollal. The long rice cake used to make ddeokguk is called garaetteok. Its shape symbolizes longevity in life. The oval shape of the rice cakes, which also resembles Korea’s old coin currency, yeopjeon, is another expression of wishing for wealth and prosperity. Children are especially excited to eat ddeokguk because consuming a bowl adds one more year to their age. 

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Performances include jindo buknori (a double-headed hourglass-shaped drum generally played with one stick and one hand), buchaechum (fan dance), and pungmul (performers wear sangmo, or hats with long ribbons attached to them that players can spin and flip in intricate patterns powered by knee bends). Traditional drums such as changgo, sogo, and pungmul-buk, among many others, are used in the mentioned performances and other festivals. 

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Commonly played traditional games are yut nori, which involves wooden sticks, and jegichagi, or a game in which players kick a jegi (which is traditionally constructed from paper and a coin) into the air and attempt to keep it aloft. Other games are paengi chigi, or top-spinning (which consists of a top and a stick with a long string), neolttwigi, or a outdoor game where participants alternatively jump on either end of a neol board that is similar to a seesaw, and yeonnalligi, or kite flying. Yut nori is a race to the finish based on the throwing of four marked sticks instead of dice to determine movement. The object is for each team to get its four Mals or horses back to and past the finish line, which is also the starting line. GoStop is another traditional game and often involves the betting of small sums of money, and is played by 2 or 3-people using Hwatu cards. Hwatu means “Battle of Flowers” and refers to the colorful images painted on the 48 cards in the deck. Each deck is broken into 12 sets of 4 similarly painted cards, representing the 12 months in the year.

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The centerpiece of the holiday is charye, or a highly structured ritual of ancestor reverence. Charye involves the preparation of food by female relatives and the serving of food to ancestors by male relatives. Everyone then participates in the final step of the ceremony called eumbok by eating the food and thereby gaining the ancestors blessing for the new year. The most common varieties are rice, soup, meat, seafood, liquor, fruit and vegetables. 

North Korea

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Though both halves of the peninsula share many aspects of culture, nearly 77 years of division between the two Koreas have led to divergent holiday traditions, which includes Korean Lunar New Year. North Koreans celebrate the Lunar New Year’s day starting by showing their loyalty to the Kim family. Later in the day, people observe ancestral rites, enjoy family meals, and watch art performances embedded with messages praising the preeminence of leader Kim Jong-un and the ruling party’s leadership. North Koreans also watch art performances including music concerts, “revolutionary operas,” and circuses held in each region, according to the previous state media reports. North Korean people still enjoy traditional folk games such as kite flying, top-spinning, jegichagi, and the yut nori board game during the Lunar New Year’s holidays.

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Singapore

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Lasting for two weeks, various festivals and parades will be carried throughout Singapore. Lunar New Year is celebrated in Singapore primarily by its Chinese diaspora, including those who are Hokkien, Cantonese, and Teochew from southeastern China; Hainanese from the Hainan province; Hakka, a migrant group spread out across China; and Peranakan, an ethic group of mixed Malay and European ancestry who have been in the region for over 400 years. Each ethnic group has its own traditions, but years of living among one another, and other peoples like Malays and Indians, formed the island’s colorful and distinctive culinary fabric.

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The largest Chinese New Year festival in Singapore is the River Hongbao, which is hosted at different locations across the country each year. The River Hong Bao has been on Singapore’s festive calendar every year since 1987, becoming an integral tradition of Singapore’s Lunar New Year celebrations. The festival offers a special Chinese cultural experience–from giant lanterns to delicious food. A variety of treats, from sticky rice cakes to pineapple tarts and nian gao (a stick rice cake that symbolizes prosperity) are enjoyed, as well as yusheng, a traditional salad that’s only had during the holiday. Fringe activities such as amusement rides and street performances are enjoyed as well. Another parade is the Chingay Parade, an extravagant celebration that includes giant floats and lion dancers. Many lion dance troupes use the Singapore drum, which has a softer resonance than traditional ones, to accompany their performances.

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Red envelopes are handed out with the engraved phrase , or good luck. Another custom is paying respect to Buddha by lighting incense at a temple. Homes all over Singapore will have decorations with crimson everywhere–from lanterns hung by the gates, to spring couplets adorning doorways, to ribbons adorning kumquat plants, a yellow fruit symbolizing gold, or prosperity. 

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Philippines

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When the clock strikes midnight in the Philippines, children and adults will jump for joy, as it’s said that it will make them grow taller. Most Filipinos flock to Binondo, the oldest Chinatown in the world, for the Lunar New Year. Spectators crowd the streets to watch the Parades of Dragons and Lions, a colorful performance accompanied by drums and cymbals, and the Lantern festival. Elders also hand out red envelopes (Ang Pao) containing money to children. Giving them is believed to bring good luck and long life to the giver and receiver. The most traditional celebration is called Media Noche, where Filipino families come together for a celebratory midnight feast. The table is filled with round-shaped fruits—a tradition that originates from China—as the shape represents good fortune. Typically eaten dishes are sticky rice dishes, such as biko, bibingka, and nian gao, because it’s believed to help bind families. Pancit (long noodles) is also enjoyed to help bring a healthy, long life and good luck. “Good Luck,” written in Chinese characters on red, precious stone molded paper, and “fortunate oranges” are additionally regularly observed around the house this season. Plum blooms, which represent fearlessness and trust, and the water narcissus, which is believed to be a “blossom of favorable luck,” are incorporated into decorations as well. 

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One of the most unique superstitions of the Lunar New Year is wearing polka dots, as their round shape represents prosperity and good fortune. To scare away bad spirits, Filipinos commonly use horns and cooking pots to create noise aside from fireworks. Another popular superstition is to not spend money on the first day of the year to encourage better finances.

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China

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Also known as the Spring Festival, Chinese New Year fell on February 1, 2022. The Year of the Tiger made its entrance, inspiring tiger-themed decorations. It is traditionally a time to honor traditional deities and familial ancestors. On New Year’s Day, Chinese elders give red envelopes (hóngbāo in Mandarin) to children or unmarried people, due to a tradition that evolved from giving coins to ward off evil spirits. Performing lion and dragon dances and lighting fireworks on New Year’s Day are other common ways to celebrate. Many will wear new clothes in the lucky colors of red and gold. People are expected to visit relatives and friends in the early days of new year, excluding the third day of the month, which is named chi kou, or red mouth. It is the belief that arguments are more likely to happen on this day, so people will visit temples and avoid social interactions. 

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In northern China, traditional food like baos, pancakes, noodles, and dumplings, is made using flour. Kids typically search for a lucky coin inside dumplings. The celebration of home and family is seen best in the tradition of Reunion Dinner, held on the eve before New Year. Family members visit home to share this one most important meal of the year with loved ones. The following days are spent visiting relatives and friends, conveying blessings of good fortune, and enjoying time with loved ones. Firecrackers are lit at the conclusion of New Year’s Eve to ward off a mythical beast ‘Nian’, which used to attack villagers every spring in Chinese folklore.

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Information taken from New York Times, NPR, CNN, The Korea Times, KoreaHerald, Asia Society, The Culture Trip, TravelandLeisure, Wikipedia, gtelocalize.com, visitsingapore.com, eresources.com, and bravosiargao.com

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