Gauss-Telegraph: Lunar New Year in East Asia
by Lena Heinecke
春节 (chūnjié in China), 正月 (shōgatsu) in Japan, 설날(seollal) in Korea, Цагаан сар (Tsagaan Sar) in Mongolia, ལོ་གསར (Losar) in Bhutan & Tết Nguyên Đán in Vietnam
Asia is the most populous continent on earth: more than half of all people live there. The various Asian countries all have their own traditions and festivals, but some of them have similarities. One example is the New Year. This article is about the similarities and differences of Lunar New Year celebrations in China, Japan, Vietnam, Korea, Mongolia as well as Bhutan.
When do they celebrate?
Unlike in the Western world, the New Year does not begin on January 1 of the Gregorian calendar, but the date depends on the lunar calendar and therefore takes place on a different day every year between January 21 and February 20. Only in Japan, the festival has been celebrated on January 1st for about 150 years. The Lunar New Year is the most important holiday in Asia and the celebrations themselves usually last three days officially, although preparations are started a few days and weeks beforehand and celebrations often continue on the following days.
What/why is celebrated? (Lunar New Year legends)
In China, an old story is about monster that came out of the mountains once a year to eat people. The people made a lot of noise and fire and used the colours gold and red to drive the monster away.
The Tsagaan Sar festival in Mongolia, on the other hand, is based on a legend according to which a Buddhist deity fights against demons and the Lord of Hell, who had swallowed the sun, every year. The deity saves the sun, comes to earth and warms it, so that spring begins. Therefore, the New Year symbolizes the renewal of nature and people, as well as hope. This symbolism can be found in all Asian cultures. The Lunar New Year heralds spring and symbolizes a new beginning. Tibetans even see the New Year as the beginning of a new life. In Vietnam, Bhutan and Mongolia, it is therefore customary to repay all debts and settle disputes of the old year before the celebration.
What are the preparations and how is the house decorated?
Preparations include buying new clothes (Vietnam, China, Bhutan) and cleaning, tidying and decorating the house or apartment (everywhere). One Tibetan tradition is a spiritual cleansing in which a dough made of flour and water is rolled over the body to draw out anything negative. This dough is then burned in the temple. A clean house and body represent a fresh start to the new year. For this reason, Koreans also bathe before the new year begins. In addition, incense and bamboo sticks are lit there to drive demons out of the house. Eating sweet red bean porridge with rice cakes some time before the New Year is also believed to drive away evil spirits. In addition, of course, food is purchased for the preparation of each dish, as well as decorative items. Many Asians also get gifts for their relatives, because the beginning of the new year is the most important celebration and consequently an occasion to spend time with the whole family back home. Most often, the celebration is held at the home of the older members of the family. A few days before the New Year, the house is decorated: In China, Chūnlián, which are red ribbons with sayings, are pasted on the door frame, as well as the inverted character for “happiness” in the middle of the door. There and also in Vietnam, tiny orange trees are placed in the room to symbolize a fruitful new year. The New Year tree (a bamboo cane with ornaments on its top) is another Vietnamese decoration.
In Japan, postcards are sent to relatives and friends for New Year. These should be at least partially handwritten, which is why the writing of these cards also makes up a large part of the preparations. In Bhutan, on the other hand, prayers are held in the temples before the holidays to receive the blessings of the gods for the coming year. On Tsagaan Sar, candles are lit the day before the New Year, representing the Buddhist enlightenment. Since, according to Mongolian beliefs, a deity visits people, three pieces of ice are placed in front of the front door for the deity’s horse to drink.
What are the traditions and customs?
On the last day of the old lunar year, people in China watch the state television gala together with their families, whereas in Mongolia a Mongolian wrestling match is shown on television. In most countries, fireworks and firecrackers are set off at midnight. Japanese people go to a temple where the temple bell is struck 108 times for the 108 sins of mankind. They also go there to buy lucky charms and oracles on paper that foretell the future for the new year. It is also a Buddhist tradition in Vietnam to have one’s fortune told in the temple and to donate money there.
During the Tibetan New Year, everyone is also drawn outside at midnight. Artists in white masks parade through the streets singing. The first task for the families in the new year there is to prepare tea with water freshly fetched from the river. Mongolians prepare milk tea in the early morning, some of which is poured in all directions, dedicated to the gods.
In the New Year, probably the most important tradition throughout Asia is visiting other family members (in Mongolia even up to ten other households a day) and eating real feasts. Many Vietnamese believe that the first visitor in the New Year determines future good fortune and therefore invite people who have had good luck in the past. In many regions, for example, in Vietnam or China, you are not allowed to sweep the house on New Year’s Day, otherwise you will sweep the luck out of the house. For the same reason, in China, one should not take a shower or do laundry on this day. Chinese believe that the behavior on the first day of the new year is repeated throughout the year, so one should eat richly, not take a nap (= laziness) and as a protection against illness also not take medicine. This symbolism is also found in Mongolian tradition, which is why there are rituals there to thank nature and the gods and to invoke good luck for the year.
New Year’s morning in Korea begins with a ceremony for the ancestors. The whole family wears their traditional costumes (hanbok) and places food and drinks on a specially prepared table. In southern Vietnam, fruits such as mango, papaya and coconut are placed on the family altar because these words sound similar to the wish “enough [money] to spend” in southern Vietnamese.
In Bhutan, China and Vietnam, dance performances are also part of the New Year. In China, for example, there is the dragon dance. As all family members celebrate together, games are also a popular way to spend the time in Korea, China, Japan and Mongolia. In general, the mood is often cheerful and exuberant.
Are there gifts?
In all Asian cultures, elders are strongly respected. On New Year’s Eve, younger people go to their older family members and neighbours to wish them well. In return, there are gifts of money, especially for children. In China, Japan and Vietnam, these are wrapped in decorated red envelopes. In Mongolia, the older family members hand out vodka in addition to money (important: freshly printed banknotes representing “the new”).
What are traditional New Year dishes?
As mentioned before, food is one of the most important parts of the New Year celebrations. The motto here is “as many elaborate dishes as possible”. Nevertheless, many countries and regions have their own specialties that are a non-negotiable part of the New Year.
Meat-filled dumplings are the traditional New Year meal in both China (jiaozi) and Mongolia (buuzs). These are often prepared on New Year’s Eve or several days in advance. Japanese eat long soba buckwheat noodles on the last night of the old year, which must not be bitten off because they represent a long life. New Year’s dishes in Japan are called osechi ryōri and are served in square, stackable wooden or leather boxes. They include zoni soup, black soybeans, miso soup, rice cakes, jellied fish paste and more. To help the stomach recover, seven-herb rice porridge is served at the end of the New Year celebrations on January 7th.
Mongolian families, in addition to dumplings, eat mutton, rice with raisins or curd, ground beef or lamb wrapped in dough, and lots of traditional pastries, which are often arranged as pyramids.
In Vietnam, glutinous rice cakes filled with meat or beans and wrapped in banana leaves are an integral part of Tết celebrations. Dried, candied coconut is also a typical specialty there. Incidentally, rice cakes and rice cake soup are also part of the New Year in Korea. These are said to promise a long life. The Korean gift table is set according to a certain order, namely domestic food in the east and sweets and imported fruits in the west.
After all these delicacies and family visits, the worldwide “post-holiday mood” often sets in, consisting of exhaustion on the one hand, but also a desire for more time together.
Are you from Asia or have you ever spent the Spring Festival there? Feel free to write us how your family celebrates this holiday and how you will celebrate this year in Germany!