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Feature: New Years Traditions

Posted January 1st, 2009 by Peter · 4 Comments

Yep, Today’s New Years Day. Right now, it’s exactly 12:00AM and I am excited… because I get to share the History of New Years in Asia:


Lunar New Year is celebrated across all of Asia, although dates vary by country. The most well-known Lunar New Year is the one celebrated by China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. The start of the Chinese New Year usually takes place sometime in late January, early February.

There are a number of different beliefs as to how Lunar New year started, but one of the more colorful Chinese legends involves a beast with an enormous mouth that could swallow people whole. This beast, named Nian, terrified people until an old man (an immortal god in disguise) tamed it, riding Nian into the sunset. Before the old man left, he suggested that people hang red paper decorations on their windows and doors at each year’s end. The color red was the color the beast feared most – and thus it would scare Nian, if the beast ever came back.

And so the tradition of Guo Nian started. Guo, which means “to pass” or “to observe,” and Nian, which means “year,” was once used to mean “survive the [beast] Nian” but is now used to “celebrate the [New] Year.”


Although Lunar New Year is celebrated differently across Asia, common themes are family togetherness and food – lots of it. Cleaning house and red envelopes of money, or hong bao, are also popular.

In particular, the Chinese believe New Year festivities, which last for 15 days, is a time for renewal, family reunion, eating rich foods and paying respects to ancestors and elders. In addition, the Chinese believe that what you do and how you act during this period will determine what kind of year you have.

So that means:

Clean your house thoroughly to sweep away misfortune and make way for good luck and fortune in the coming year. Decorate your home with paper cutouts of the words “happiness,” “wealth” and “longevity.” Serve jiaozi, or boiled dumplings. Jiaozi, which literally translates to “sleep together and have sons,” is considered a traditional good wish greeting for a family. Serve a whole fish. The Chinese word for fish, oryu, sounds like the word for “plenty” and offers wishes for abundance and riches. Give hong bao, or red envelopes of money. It is customary for the married to give to the unmarried, and the more senior to give to the more junior. Wish everyone Xin Nian Kuai Le (“Happy New Year”) or Gong Xi Fa Cai (“May Prosperity Be with You”).

The Japanese, whose New Year’s Day is January 1, are similarly serious about colorful festivities, housecleaning, food and cash (or otoshi-dama, “New Year’s treasure”). The Vietnamese, who celebrate Tet in three fun-filled days, and Singaporeans also follow these traditions.

Koreans, on the other hand, take a more low-key approach. They spend more time reflecting on family and honoring ancestors rather than on pomp and circumstance – but the food is just as plentiful as in other Asian celebrations.

Thailand welcomes its new year, Songkran, in mid-April. Water plays a big role; people douse each other with perfumed water to symbolize cleansing and renewal. India’s Diwali, celebrated in the fall, is a four-day festival that signifies the triumph of light over dark, or good over evil.

Fu – the Chinese character for ‘good luck”. People paint signs with this character to hang in their homes and in the streets during Chinese New Year. These signs are painted in the traditional red and gold and are hung upside down. The Chinese word for upside down rhymes with the Chinese word for “arrive”, so by hanging the sign upside down, good luck will arrive.

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Here are a few traditions from around the world.

Not to get too personal, but what color undies did you wear last night?

It could make all the difference for health and happiness in 2009.

Wearing yellow knickers at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve is believed to usher in wealth and prosperity in many Latin and South American cultures.

Wearing, eating or doing something to bring good luck is a New Year’s tradition the world over. Even if you forgot the golden undies last night, there are plenty of other customs you can act on today to make 2009 a prosperous year:

Eat black-eyed peas and collard greens: The beans symbolize luck and the greens wealth. It is one of the varying interpretations of this American South tradition.

Eat lentils: The circular legumes represent coins and are a popular culinary staple in Italian and Latin New Year’s meals.

Eat cabbage: The leaves of this vegetable are thought to represent money.

Eat pomegranates: Again, the seeds are thought to represent coins in some cultures.

Get cleaning: Purging your home of old things is meant to make room for the new and represent a fresh start.

If it has a golden color, eat it: Foods yellow or gold in color, such as oranges, are thought to represent wealth.

Embrace circular foods: Breads, pies and orb-shaped fruits represent coming full circle and are believed to bring good fortune.

Hope the first guest through the door is a man: If a man enters your home at the start of the new year you’re in luck; if it’s a woman . . . hope for the best.

Eat egg and spring rolls: In some Asian cultures these fried favorites symbolize gold bars.

Parade a baby around in a basket: The ancient Greeks did this to honor Dionysus, the god of wine and fertility.

Whatever you do, don’t eat lobster, beef or chicken. All move backward or stand to eat, both signs of bad luck.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service contributed to this report.

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Written By: Tenley Woodman

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Tags: Culture · Customs · Environment · Habits · History · People

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Chris // Jan 1, 2009 at 10:46 am

    it’s the year of the OX
    – thanks Chris

  • 2 some additional information // Jan 2, 2009 at 10:31 am

    as a very traditional chinese, this is the first time i’ve heard of the beast “with an enormous mouth that could swallow people whole” legend. also the nian wasn’t afraid of the color red. it was the firecrackers and the loud drums and cymbals and gongs that scared it away. and i’m pretty sure jiaozi doesn’t mean to “sleep together and have sons” either.

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