Worldwide Locations

Worldwide Locations

Celebrating the New Year in Asia

Youngsters celebrate Lunar New Year in Hong Kong with a dragon dance. (-RS-/flickr)

Youngsters celebrate Lunar New Year in Hong Kong with a dragon dance. (-RS-/flickr)


These calendars offer many possibilities for celebrating the start of a new year. Here are some of the most famous new year festivals of different cultures of Asia:

The Thai new year, Songkran, is now celebrated in Thailand, Laos, and some other parts of Southeast Asia on April 13-15 according to the Western calendar. In premodern times the date varied and was calculated according to a soli-lunar calendar. Songkran is a festival of purification, and its main feature is water-splashing. In fact Songkran resembles a big, friendly, three-day water fight. Everyone carries a jar or basin of water and splashes everyone else whenever possible; to splash someone is to give that person a blessing. (Tourists quickly learn to keep their cameras in plastic bags.) Another famous feature of Songkran is dragon-boat racing; teams of rowers propel long, narrow boats at top speed on rivers and lakes, with prizes for the winners.

Chinese New Year is defined as the second new moon after the winter solstice; thus it begins sometime between late January and mid-February, approximately at the beginning of Spring (which, in the Chinese calendar, starts forty-five days after the winter solstice). It is celebrated not only in China, but also in Korea, Vietnam (where it is known as Tet), and in Chinese communities throughout the world. Although there are many specific small differences among the celebrations of different communities, in general terms they are very similar.

Many customs are designed to bring good luck in the coming year. Before the beginning of the new year, people pay off all of their debts, if possible; it is bad luck to begin a year in debt. Children are given presents of money, wrapped in red envelopes (red is the color of good fortune), and children and adults alike put on new clothing. The house is cleaned, and new paper pictures are pasted up to honor the door gods, the stove god, the animal symbol of the incoming year, and lucky slogans such as “springtime” or “good fortune arrives.” People wish one another gongxi facai, “congratulations, may you get rich.” Perhaps the most important feature of a Chinese New Year celebration is a banquet, with many special kinds of food with lucky connotations: noodles for long life, fish (because the Chinese word for “fish,” yu, also sounds like the word for “abundance”), and sweet rice cakes for a rich, sweet life.

Chinese years are counted in a repeating twelve-year sequence, each year symbolized by an animal: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig. So every year has an animal: the Year of the Pig and so on. These symbols are considered especially important in marriage match-making, to make sure that the husband and wife will be compatible. (For example, if a woman born in the Year of the Snake marries a man born in the Year of the Rat, there will be trouble ahead.)

In premodern times Japan also celebrated a lunar new year (Setsubun), but since the adoption of the Western calendar in Japan in 1873 the official New Year’s Day has been January 1. Some people celebrate the traditional new year as well as the modern one; others have simply transposed the old customs to the new holiday. For example, at the new year every house is thoroughly swept, and dried beans are scattered in every room of the house to chase away evil spirits. Throughout Japan on New Year’s Eve, the bells of Buddhist temples are rung 108 times (for the number of beads on a Buddhist rosary); television stations broadcast the bell-ringing from temples with particularly large or famous bells, and many people watch the ceremony on TV.