How to Celebrate Lunar New Year as a Family

Ready for the year of the rabbit? Lunar New Year begins on January 22 this year. Here's how you can join the festivities with your family.

Young girl celebrating Lunar New Year at home

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Lunar New Year is the biggest holiday of the year in many Asian countries. It's a fabulous fifteen-day celebration filled with fireworks, special food dishes, and parades. In the United States, Lunar New Year isn't a day off from work or school, but many Asian-American families still commemorate it with their own customs and traditions. Here's how you can teach your own kids about Lunar New Year, plus a few ways to celebrate at home.

What is Lunar New Year?

Lunar New Year dates back about 3,500 years. It marks the beginning of the traditional lunisolar calendar, based on the cycles of the sun and moon, which was founded for agricultural purposes.

While many Americans refer to the holiday as "Chinese New Year," it's actually celebrated in other Asian counties as well, including South Korea, Vietnam, Taiwan, and Singapore. The customs and traditions vary by country, and even by region. Overall, it's a time to honor ancestors and deities, feast on customary foods, and welcome the new year.

Many people associate Lunar New Year with the zodiac. That's because the Chinese zodiac runs through a 12-year cycle, with each year represented by a different animal: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog and pig. 2023 is the year of the rabbit.

When is Lunar New Year?

Lunar New Year (also known as Spring Festival) starts with the first new moon of the lunisolar calendar. It lasts through the first full moon—a time period of 15 days. The holiday falls at a different time every year, usually ranging between January 21 and February 20.

In 2023, Lunar New Year begins on January 22. The festivities end with the Lantern Festival, which will take place on February 5 to commemorate the last day of celebrations. The Lantern Festival features plenty of colorful lanterns, parades, festivals, and traditional foods symbolizing prosperity and togetherness.

Lunar New Year Traditions

In preparation for Lunar New Year, families clean their house to banish bad spirits and welcome a fresh start. Then, once the way for good luck is paved, they'll partake in various celebrations. The details vary based on country and culture, but here are a few classic Lunar New Year traditions.

Wearing Red

Red is associated with good luck, so many people wear the vibrant color for Lunar New Year. A red Chinese dress is traditional for girls, but in these modern times, my sports-loving teenage daughters prefer wearing red shirts, a red scrunchie, and wacky red socks.

Host a Feast

Billions of people travel to visit their families for Lunar New Year, and they'll enjoy a "reunion dinner" to kick off the celebration. Some foods associated with the holiday include dumplings, whole fish, sweet rice cakes, and glutinous rice balls.

Set Off Firecrackers

According to one legend, the tradition of firecrackers grew out of a fight with a monster (Nian) who appeared on Chinese New Year's Eve. Most families shut their doors and hide, but an old man was brave enough to fight off the monster with firecrackers. Since then, fireworks are set off to scare away evil spirits on Lunar New Year.

Attend a Lion Dance or Parade

Communities gather for live Lunar New Year performances thought to bring prosperity and good luck. Watching a lion dance, complete with clanging cymbals and booming drums, is exhilarating. My kids are thrilled by the vibrant, colorful lions dancing around like giant pets with googly eyes. Another popular Lunar New Year tradition is the dragon dance, where puppeteers control a large dragon with dancing movements.

Red Envelopes

One of the most popular Chinese traditions is the gift of a red envelope from parents and relatives. The packets are decorated with brilliant stenciling (be on the lookout for adorable bunny caricatures this year!) They're usually filled with cash—but if you want a modern take, consider stuffing the envelopes with chocolate coins or other goodies instead. This year, I managed to snag freshly minted $2 bills to fill the Lunar New Year envelopes for my children.

Decorate the House

Not only do people wear red on Lunar New Year, but homes also get decked out in the vibrant color, which symbolizes good fortune. You'll find red lanterns, red paper cut-outs, red painted doors, and more. My personal holiday hack is reusing my red Christmas decorations. The red lights in my trees will stay up throughout Lunar New Year, and my New Year's fireworks light display is switched on again for the festival.

How to Celebrate Lunar New Year With Your Family

To celebrate Lunar New Year, start by participating in the traditions outlined above: cleaning the house, decorating with red, hosting a feast, gifting red envelopes, etc. Then consider these other fun ways to ring in the holiday with your family.

Make Dumplings

Many families love making dumplings together for Lunar New Year. When my kids were young, they used to bundle the dough into tiny pouches because I didn't trust raw meat wouldn't end up in their mouths. They were still delighted by their meatless cooked creations! Dumplings aren't only delicious, but also represent gold ingots, a lucky symbol for Chinese New Year.

Share Stories

To make Lunar New Year fun for kids, share some stories tales about the 12 Chinese zodiac animals. Here's one tale that's relevant for the year of the rabbit: The Jade Emperor decided to host a party and declared that the order of the zodiac would be determined by whoever arrived first. The rabbit bounced away at sunrise and arrived at the Jade Emperor's home to find it empty. No other animal was in sight. Proud of its speed, the rabbit skipped off to a corner and took a nap. When the bunny awoke, three other animals had arrived, including the ox, whom the rabbit liked to tease for being slow. The rabbit ended up fourth in line in the zodiac cycle, behind the lumbering ox, rat, and tiger.

You can also find several wonderful Lunar New Year books for kids that explain the various customs.

Do Arts and Crafts

Getting crafty with Lunar New Year cut-outs can be a calming family activity. Some ideas are making red paper lanterns or constructing animals out of paper plates . After all, you've got a full cast of animals—like lions, dragons, and rabbits—to cut, draw, and color.

Spend Time Together

The most important thing about the holiday is celebrating alongside your family. Watching my children participate in Lunar New Year traditions reassures me that they're still embracing their identity.

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