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Welcome to the David Victor Vector blog. This is blog that covers religious observances around the world international affairs and global business. This blog describes religious holidays for most major religions as well as raising issues dealing with globalization, international business ethics, cross-cultural business communication and political events affecting business in an integrated world economy. I look forward your discussion and commentary on these articles and subjects. Enjoy!

Saturday, January 14, 2012

One New Year, Many Traditions: Lunar New Year Customs Around The World

Zodiac animals, ivory netsuke, Japan
American Museum of Natural History, New York

This post is one of a series of four posts discussing the Asian Lunar New Year in general and the Year of each year's particular animal. In this post, though, we give the background to Lunar New Year customs around the world.  (Note: This is updated annually).

This post gives background to the importance and influence of the Asian Lunar New Year and the many traditions with which people celebrate the holiday from culture to culture.

One point on terminology is merited here. The Asian Lunar New Year is celebrated by many cultures. Among the largest cultures that celebrate the holiday are the Chinese. For this reason, well-meaning people unfamiliar with the Asian Lunar New Year as a whole may refer to the holiday as the Chinese New Year (CNY). This would, however, be appropriate only when referring to the Lunar New Year as celebrated in China. Using CNY to refer to the whole range of cultures observing the Lunar New Year, though, discounts the millions of non-Chinese celebrations. These include the Mongolian Tsagaan Sar, Korean Seollal, Japanese Oshogatsu, and Bhutanese and Tibetan Losar. all of which are explained below.


 In China, Taiwan and Singapore, as well as wherever Chinese communities exist abroad, the celebration is correctly called the Chinese New Year.  In cities with large overseas Chinese communities, major celebrations take place.  As a result, festive decoration and parades are annual events in major cities around the  world. Celebrations have long been annual events in many other non-Asian cities throughout the world. In tomorrow's post, I will list links to New Year celebrations around the world.

Some Chinese believe that children should stay up as late as possible on the first day of the New Year, believing that the longer they stay awake, the longer their parents will live. Also, many Chinese will not scold their children on the first day of the New Year, believing that reprimanding them will bring bad fortune to the

The second day is usually devoted to honoring dead ancestors.  This is particularly important in Confucian tradition.  The third and fourth days often revolve around honoring (or just visiting) in-laws.  The 5th day is called Po Woo, a day in which – unlike the rest of the celebrations – nobody visits anyone else.  Po Woo is the day that people traditionally welcome in wealth.  Visiting others on that day is believed to bring bad luck to both parties.  Other traditions occur on the 6th to 14th days, many of which vary from place to place.  

Finally the last day – the 15th day – is the ending festival called the Lantern Festival.  The Lantern Festival concludes the celebration and occurs on the full moon, and centers around decorating with lanterns and having parades of people carrying lanterns.  Taipei, Taiwan has the largest such display and has become a tourist attraction for the celebration.
Traditional red gift-giving envelopes
Many Chinese spend weeks getting ready for the New Year.  The house is cleaned thoroughly, at least traditionally to clean out any bad luck from the previous year. For others, the good cleaning is simply a way of preparing for the family gathering on the Eve of the New Year.  Doors and windows are often painted red and decorations of red are widespread.  Many people seal the doors and windows on the eve of New Year’s and break the seals open on New Year’s Day to welcome in the New Year. In Chinese tradition, red is a lucky color that for many people is seen as warding off bad luck. For others, the red decorations are simply seen as festive. Traditionally, gifts of money are given to children (and sometimes to unmarried people) in special red envelopes.

The celebration itself is generally celebrated for 15 days, with different events on each.

The 2007 Year of the Dog
Goodwill Dog Circus

On New Year’s Day, large parades take place, usually honoring the animal. Sometimes this has political significance on an international level.  For example, 2007 – as the Year of the Dog-- the government of Japan sent a “dog circus” of performing dogs to China in a move to 
improve relations between the two countries. 

Candied lotus seeds
 Other activities on the first day include setting off firecrackers (to scare off evil spirits or bad luck), wearing new clothes bought for the occasion and eating special holiday foods.  While these foods change from group to group (as Chinese culture is broad and varied), some more widespread foods include eating candied lotus seeds (which brings good luck) and candied coconut (for underscoring family ties and bonding).  Children often are given candied melon (which is thought to ensure healthy growth).

Long noodles are often eaten to represent long life (although it is considered unlucky to cut the noodles in such cases). Because clams are thought to look like gold bullion and gingko nuts are thought to look like silver ingots, these foods are eaten to ensure wealth in the coming year. Oranges or tangerines are usually exchanged among friends.  Many Chinese avoid eating meat on the first day. . In Cantonese-speaking areas, people often eat lettuce wraps since the word for lettuce in Cantonese sounds like the word for rising fortune.


In Vietnam, the holiday is celebrated as Tet.  While Tet usually occurs on the same day as the Chinese New Year, due to slightly different calendar systems, Tet may occur a day after the Chinese New Year.  The last two times this happened was in 1985 and again in 2007 (for those of you who are concerned, we won’t have to worry about the change again until 2030).

Banh chung

Traditional Tet foods include roasted watermelon seeds, and banh chung and banh tet (sticky rice prepared inside banana leaves).   For instructions on how to you’re your own banh chung and banh tet (including a video with step-by-step instructions), you may wish to go to the Viet World Kitchen site at :

Tet Pole or cay neu

In preparation for Tet, in addition to cleaning their houses, Vietnamese try to pay off all of their debts, so that they will not owe anyone as the New Year starts.  Also, many Vietnamese have a family altar for honoring one’s ancestors.  This altar is traditionally cleaned and new offering placed there on Tet. 

Traditional Tet decorations in one’s house include a decorated cay neu or Tet Pole and small kumquat trees. The first person who visits on Tet is considered an important omen for the coming year.  As a result, people invite someone they think can bring good fortune (for example, a very upbeat friend).  Being invited for this is a high honor.  


In Mongolia (and in China among the 4.3 million ethnic Mongolian minority), the holiday is celebrated as Tsagaan Sar. 

Mongolians are usually insulted if Tsagaan Sar is called “Chinese New Year.”  This is for two reasons.  First, the Mongolians believe that Tsagaan Sar predates the Chinese celebration, and strongly reject any Chinese influence.  Second, though this is no longer the casw the Communist leadership of China in the 1960’s tried to stamp out the religiously significant holiday among its Mongolian minority, persecuted its practitioners, and unsuccessfully attempted to rename the holiday “Cattle Breeders’ Day.”  This persecution ended with the liberalization of China, but has left very bad feeling not only among those Chinese citizens of Mongolian descent, but throughout the nation of Mongolia as well.

Mongolian buuz

Mongolian airag
Tsangaan Sar is a time of family gatherings and exchanging gifts. While the Chinese avoid meat on the first day of the New Year, the Mongolians do eat meat. Indeed, the most traditional meal of Tsangaan Sar is buuz, which are dumpling filled with beef or mutton. People also have airag, which is fermented mare’s milk.

Palden Lhamo
The celebration of Tsagaan Sar actually begins on the preceding day with Bituun. This is a day of cleaning houses and barns. In Mongolian Buddhist tradition, candles are lit at altars to symbolize the enlightenment of samsara  (the continuous cycle of life and death).  Bituun is also when people make amends with each other and settle disputes from the previous year. Finally, on Bituun,  the Buddhist Dharmapala (protecting, vengeful diety) named Palden Lhamo visits people’s homes. She arrives on horseback and people leave three pieces of ice on their doorsteps to quench its thirst.


In Tibet and Bhutan, the lunar new year holiday is called Losar. Lo means "new" and sar means "year." Losar is also the name used for the holiday among the Sherpa and Tamang people in Nepal and the Bhutia people of the Indian state of Sikkim.

Masked performer in Losar play
In the Buddhist monasteries in Tibet , the day preceding Losar is a sort of winter equivalent to spring cleaning.  The monasteries are cleaned thoroughly, then decorated festively.  Losar itself is an important  religious observance.  Indeed, the last two days of the old year are considered a holiday -- called Gutor -- whose sole purpose is cleaning and other preparation for the first day of Losar. Special rituals are led by the Dalai Lama on Losar itself, followed by lamas, reincarnated monks and secular officials. On the first day of Losar, people traditionally bathe and go to the Temple to pray. Plays are put on in which masked performers enact the conquest of good over evil.

The second day of Losar – called King Losar Day -- is a secular celebration with gatherings of family and friends.  Traditionally, people eat dumplings with scraps of paper or bit of wood in them on which are written fortunes for the coming year.

Many Bhutanese traditionally travel attempt to travel to Tibet if possible.  In Tibet the holiday lasts 15 days; for Tibetan Buddhists in exile in India, the holiday has been shortened to 3 days; while Tibetan Buddhists in North America have customarily reduced the celebration to the first day of Losar only.


Children wearing han bok at Seol
In Korea, people celebrate the New Year as Seollal (Solnal or Seol).  Customarily people not only clean the house for Seollal, but bathe first thing in the morning to clean themselves as well.  Many Koreans – and especially children --dress in (Solnal or Seol).  Customarily people not only clean the house for Seollal, but bathe first thing in the morning to clean themselves as well.  Many Koreans – and especially children --dress in (Solnal or Seol).  Customarily people not only clean the house for Seollal, but bathe first thing in the morning to clean themselves as well.  Many Koreans – and especially children --dress in ).  Customarily people not only clean the house for Seollal, but bathe first thing in the morning to clean themselves as well.  Many Koreans – and especially children --dress in han bok (the traditional Korean outfit). 

In contrast to the Chinese who use red on their New Year, most Koreans avoid red.  Likewise, where many Chinese avoid meat on the first day, fried meats are a traditional food for Seollal in Korea. That said, arguably the most popular Seollal dish is Duk gook (traditional Korean rice cake soup) for the morning meal. The traditional alcoholic drink called gui balk sul is drunk on Seollal as well; it is believed to make one’s hearing better… and by extension make one more aware during the coming year. In many Korean families, children show various forms of respect to parents and grandparents. For many Koreans, the most important tradition of Seollal is making offerings at the family altar, often including a seh bae or bow to the floor.  The types of offerings and where they are placed on the altar are complex and highly ritualized.

Traditional Seollal altar (left)
Performing seh bae (center)
Duk gook (right)
The game of yut
Seollal is also a time for having fun.  Adults and children often participate in family activities, such as kite flying (yeonnaligi) or playing games together. Throughout the 15 days of celebration, people traditionally play a game called yut (or yutnori) which is a sort of gambling game that uses four sticks (which is unusual in Korea where 4 is in all other things considered an unlucky number).

Also, Seol often includes visits to fortune-tellers for insight into the coming year. The 15th day concludes the celebration with the celebration of Daeboreum.  Unlike China or Vietnam, there are no lanterns involved.  Since Daeboreum occurs on the year’s first full moon, many people consider it important to be the first to see the moon rise.  Some people climb hills or even mountains to be the first to see the moon. 

A widespread custom (and far more common custom than mountain climbing) eating yakshik (a traditional concoction of sesame oil, honey, pinenuts and sticky rice)  One recipe for yakshik is available at the Asian Supper website: 


Finally, eating nuts is traditional, with the custom of cracking them with one’s teeth for the holiday.



Officially, the Japanese do not celebrate the Lunar New Year. In 1873 in the midst of the modernization campaigns of the Meiji Restoration. the Japanese officially moved their traditional Lunar New Year celebration of Oshogatsu from the beginning of the lunar calendar to January 1 of the secular Gregorian calendar.

Joya no kane ceremony
at Shinnyo-do Temple, Kyoto
Nevertheless,  the Japanese continue to mix the old Oshogatsu traditions with the secular New Year and hold to the 12-animal cycle.  At the same time, in many Oshogatsu is still celebrated in rural areas at the beginning of the Lunar New Year. For example, in rural areas of Japan, the joya no kane ritual in which which people ring the great bells in Buddhist Temples 108 times (for eliminating the 108 earthly desires) on the actual Lunar New Year's Day while in the rest of Japan the bell-ringing occurs on New Year's Eve.

Even on the secular New Year, Japanese practice many of the same customs as the rest of Asia. As the Japanese site Family Customs explains:

Like other Asian New Year traditions, adults give money to children on New Year' Day. It is called "otoshi-dama" or the "new year treasure." Children also play various games to usher in the New Year. A popular game is "Furuwarai" which is the American version of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey. http://familyculture.com/holidays/japanese_new_year.htm   


I have likely missed many cultures. Please share yours with me.

As always I welcome your input -- positive and negative -- and I hope
you find this valua
,ble. If you DO like this, please help spread the word and tell others. 

Gung Hay Fat Choy! (Chinese: May prosperity be with you!) 
Saehae bok manhi baduseyo! (Korean: May your receive many New Year's blessings!)
Lo Sar Bey Tashi Delek! (Tibetan: A New Year of prosperity and good will!)
An khang thịnh vượng! (Vietnamese: Security, good health and prosperity!) 

Clip Art Sources

Zodiac animals, ivory netsuke, Japan, American Museum of Natural History, New York

Banh chung: http://www.vietworldkitchen.com/blog/2008/02/tet-sticky-rice-cakes-banh-chung.html

Cay neu Tet pole:  http://v2.lscache6.c.bigcache.googleapis.com/static.panoramio.com/photos/original/32190086.jpg

Mongolian flag: http://www.mapsofworld.com/images/world-countries-flags/mongolia-flag.gif

Mongolian buuz: http://traditionscustoms.com/sites/default/files/buuz_mongolia.jpg

Mongolian airag:  http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/41/Airag_2.JPG

Palden Lhamo: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:PaldenLhamo.jpg

Masked performer in Losar play: http://www.buddhachannel.tv/portail/spip.php?article11474

Children wearing han bok at Seol: http://bohemiantraveler.com/2011/02/my-korean-lunar-new-year/#

Korean altar, man doing seh bae, and duk gook: "Celebrating Soellal (Lunar New Year) in Korea," Official Site of Korea Tourism: http://english.visitkorea.or.kr/enu/SI/SI_EN_3_6.jsp?cid=941952
The game of yut: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Korea_yut_pan.jpg

Yakshik: http://asiansupper.com/files/imagecache/recipe_page/119-yak-shik-sticky-rice-dates-nuts1.jpg

Joya no kane ceremony at Shinnyo-do Temple, Kyoto: http://www.kyotoguide.com/ver2/event/event%20currentevent-.htm

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