This lunar year will be the Year of the Rabbit or the Year of the Cat, depending on where you live
Megan Bryson, Associate Professor of Religious Studies, University of Tennessee
On Jan. 22, 2023, more than a billion people globally will welcome the Year of the Rabbit – or the Year of Cat, depending on which cultural traditions they follow – as the start of the Lunar New Year. In the New York City public school district, Lunar New Year has been observed as a school holiday since 2015.
The Lunar New Year is sometimes called the Chinese New Year, because it follows a calendar that was developed in China; but it is also celebrated in various parts of Asia, such as Korea and Vietnam. Tibetan and Mongolian cultures follow a similar calendar that will start the Year of the Rabbit about a month later, on Feb. 20.
While this calendar is sometimes just called “lunar,” it adds an extra month every few years to stay in sync with the solar cycle, so it’s technically lunar and solar, or lunisolar. This means that the date of the Lunar New Year in the Gregorian calendar changes from year to year but always falls in January or February. The Gregorian calendar is the solar calendar used today in most parts of the world, including the United States.
As a scholar of East Asian religions, I am familiar with the wide range of lunar and lunisolar calendars used in different religions and cultures, and especially with the religious significance of the East Asian lunisolar calendar.
In most parts of East Asia, the new year that begins on Jan. 22 corresponds to the rabbit, and also to the element of water and the feminine yin force. The cycle takes 60 years to complete, so 60th birthdays across East Asia are times for special celebrations.
However, the animal associations of the zodiac can vary: In Vietnam, Jan. 22 will usher in the Year of the Cat instead. The most recent Year of the Cat, in 2011, saw a baby boom in Vietnam because of the good luck associated with that zodiac sign.
One explanation among scholars for why Vietnamese culture celebrates it as the Year of the Cat is that the earthly branch corresponding to “rabbit” is pronounced mao in Mandarin and meo in Vietnamese, which sounds similar to the Vietnamese word for “cat.”
Another explanation comes from two variations of a popular legend about how the 12 zodiac animals were chosen. According to that legend, either the Buddha or the Jade Emperor, head of the Chinese pantheon, organized a race across a river to choose the zodiac animals and their order.
In the Chinese version, the cat and rat were riding across a river on an ox when the rat, in its drive to be first, pushed the cat into the water so that the cat arrived last and was disqualified. The rabbit was crossing the river by hopping on stones sticking out of the water, but with one lucky leap it landed on a floating log that swiftly carried it to shore, so that the rabbit finished fourth. However, in the Vietnamese version – which lacks a rabbit – the cat could swim and ended up arriving fourth.
In the Chinese tradition, people born in particular zodiac years have some of their animal’s characteristics. Since the late 20th century, Chinese regions have seen birth rates spike during Years of the Dragon because dragons are powerful symbols of good fortune and success.
Some animals carry strongly gendered meanings: the Year of the Tiger is widely seen as a good year for male births, but female tigers are stereotyped as overly aggressive. In Korea, the Year of the Horse is similarly perceived as a bad time for girls to be born.
The Rabbit God is not always understood as a god of male same-sex love. He can also be a symbol of longevity. Chinese lore holds that a rabbit and toad on the Moon work with the moon goddess Chang’e to refine the elixir of immortality.
The Year of the Rabbit will feature rabbit decorations, rabbit-themed marketing, and an abundance of new pet rabbits. However, the celebration will remain the same as in other years.
Chinese Lunar New Year celebrations emphasize family togetherness as well as good luck and prosperity for the coming year. In China, the Lunar New Year marks the world’s largest annual human migration, as people who work in big cities travel home to see their families for the two-week holiday.
The new year officially ushers in the spring, so it is also called Spring Festival, or Chunjie in Mandarin. To start the New Year on the right foot, people get haircuts, clean their houses and wear new clothes. These new clothes, like most New Year’s decorations, are red, which symbolizes good fortune.
New Year’s foods also aim to bring good fortune. Among the dishes commonly eaten at New Year’s are fish, because in Mandarin “having fish,” you yu, is a homophone for “having a surplus.” Eating a dessert of glutinous rice balls in sweet soup, known as tangyuan, represents the family being complete, because the word for round, yuan, also means “complete.”
Family is the focus of New Year celebrations, which traditionally take place in the home of the husband’s family. Adults generally give gifts of money in red envelopes to younger relatives who are still in school. On the second or third day of the new year, families often travel to the wife’s family home to see the in-laws.
The Lantern Festival, Yuanxiao jie, wraps up the festivities two weeks after the New Year begins with the first full moon of the year. As the name suggests, people celebrate with decorated lanterns, which often have riddles attached. In addition to guessing the answers to these riddles, people celebrate by eating tangyuan or similar round dumplings called yuanxiao, and watching dragon and lion dances.
The global Asian diaspora means that Lunar New Year is now celebrated around the world, including in the United States. Chinese American, Korean American, and Vietnamese American communities will mark the beginning of the Lunar New Year with a variety of celebrations, some welcoming the Year of the Rabbit and others welcoming the Year of the Cat.
Megan Bryson does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Jeff J Mitchell // Getty Images
Also known as the Lunar New Year, Chinese New Year celebrations are a 15-day extravaganza of cultural events and traditions that are celebrated worldwide. While many regard it as a Chinese tradition, the Lunar New Year is celebrated across a variety of Asian cultures, including Korean, Thai, Singaporean, Taiwanese, Malaysian, Indonesian, and Filipino cultures. Additionally, Lunar New Year celebrations happen in Chinatowns across the world, with notable events in New York City, London, Sydney, and Vancouver. Chinese New Year festivities have become an attraction around the world, drawing tourists who are eager to partake in celebrations.
For observers of the lunar calendar, the new year marks a point of growth, a chance to reset, and renewed hope for a prosperous future. The tradition of celebrating the Chinese New Year is believed to have begun during the Shang dynasty as a spring carnival that welcomed the season and paid tribute to the gods and ancestors. Since then, the holiday has developed robust traditions that include special foods, vibrant performances, and firework shows. While some customs have become synonymous with the celebration of the Chinese New Year, such as red decorations and the famous lantern festival, others focus on the unique traditions of the individual locales and cultures. Though these customs can vary by region, the spirit of hope and good fortune unites all cultures that celebrate the Lunar New Year.
In celebration of the Chinese New Year, Stacker compiled a collection of 30 incredible images showcasing the diverse traditions of the celebration. Keep reading to learn more about these traditions in practice.
Red is the color of luck in Chinese culture, and these traditional red lanterns are an essential decoration when ushering in the new year. The lanterns feature hand-painted characters wishing health, peace, and prosperity for the upcoming year. Hanging lanterns for the Chinese New Year is a 500-year-old tradition, originating during the Han dynasty. Here, a Chinese worker hangs freshly hand-painted red lanterns up to dry in the village of Tuntou in Hebei province, China. Tuntou is a village famous for its production of red lanterns.
STR/AFP // Getty Images
As the new year approaches, the New Year’s markets open annually in the streets with stalls offering red envelopes with custom calligraphy, decorations, flowers, and other traditional wears for New Year’s celebrations. These markets are usually open a few days in advance of New Year’s Eve. Pictured here, two women consider decorations for their Lunar New Year celebrations at a market in Yiwu in China’s eastern Zhejiang province.
HOANG DINH NAM/AFP // Getty Images
The Chinese culture, as well as other Asian cultures, including Vietnamese culture, observe the lunar calendar. For millennia, the passage of time has been closely linked in the Chinese culture to the cyclical pattern of agriculture. For this reason, the lunar calendar is also referred to as the agriculture calendar or the old calendar. This picture shows customers shopping for a variety of lunar calendars in front of a bookstore in downtown Hanoi in Vietnam.
ELAINE YU/AFP // Getty Images
An incoming new year is a time to start anticipating what is ahead. Feng shui consultations are called upon during this time to predict and navigate the new Chinese zodiac year. In large cities like Hong Kong, people from all socioeconomic backgrounds consult Feng shui practitioners to consult about the new year. Here, Feng shui master Thierry Chow uses a luopan, or Chinese compass, at her office in Hong Kong ahead of the new year.
HOANG DINH NAM/AFP // Getty Images
At the New Year’s markets, calligraphers sell decorative banners and envelopes with couplets wishing luck, prosperity, and good health for the new year. This photo is of a calligrapher outside the Temple of Literature in downtown Hanoi in Vietnam in preparation for the Vietnamese Lunar New Year or Tet.
Money-filled red envelopes, known as ang pows, are a customary gift given out primarily to children and teenagers at familial New Year’s Day feasts. They can also be given out to friends and family as a celebratory gift. Above is a photo of Hong Kong Exchange Chairman Chow Chung-kong handing out a red envelope after the first day of trading began after the Lunar New Year holiday in Hong Kong in 2014.
STR/AFP // Getty Images
The Lunar New Year is the world’s largest annual mass migration, and Chinese residents rush to train stations to secure tickets to see friends and family (as seen in the photo of a Beijing railway station above). The 40-day travel rush, also known as Chunyun, begins in mid-January and goes through to mid-February.
Carl Court // Getty Images
Preparing special New Year’s foods is an essential tradition in Chinese culture. Customary foods, like many of the other New Year’s traditions, are meant to give blessings for the new year. Here, a London Chinatown restaurant prepares for New Year’s Day customers by making customary dumplings. Along with dumplings, spring rolls, noodles, and steamed fish are traditional foods prepared for the large annual feasts.
Chris McGrath // Getty Images
Oranges and tangerines are a symbol of luck and good fortune and make great gifts for loved ones for the new year. The gold color of their skin is symbolic of prosperity in Chinese culture. Above, Singaporeans shop for tangerines and oranges at a street stall ahead of their New Year’s celebrations.
TANG CHHIN SOTHY/AFP // Getty Images
In some countries, it is traditional to burn sugarcane stalks with paper offerings for the dead on the ninth day of celebrations. On this ninth day, families either gather at the temple or their home’s alter to burn the stalks of long uncut sugarcane along with paper offerings and other fruits as a tribute to their ancestors. Pictured above, shoppers buy sugarcane in front of a temple to mark the start of the Lunar New Year in Kandal, Cambodia.
The tradition of honoring gods and ancestors typically starts at 11 p.m. on New Year’s Eve, followed by a celebratory feast. Honoring gods and ancestors are a way for people to honor their heritage and is based on the belief that deceased family members look over their family and have an influence on their future prosperity. Here, Los Angeles celebrants welcome the new year with offerings of blessings to the deities during a midnight ceremony at the Chua Thien Hau Temple in Chinatown.
Wang He // Getty Images
The reunion feast is regarded as one of the most important traditions during the Lunar New Year. Also called Tuan Nian or Wei Lu, the reunion feast is named as such because all children are to return to their families for a meal of symbolic food to usher in a prosperous new year. Photographed is a feast made up of traditional dishes during a Lunar New Year gathering in Wuhan, Hubei province, China.
China Photos // Getty Images
On the night of New Year’s Eve, in Chinese tradition, children are allowed to stay up late, and all of the lights in the homes are to be on through the night. At midnight, a big show of fireworks bids the past year farewell and ushers in the new year. Pictured above, people watch firework displays to mark the Chinese New Year beside the Pearl River in Guangzhou, China.
Kevin Frayer // Getty Images
The dragon dance dates back to the Han dynasty, initially for the purpose of worshipping ancestors. However, by the Tang dynasty, the dragon dance became a celebratory dance for the new year, symbolizing wisdom, power, wealth, and, most importantly, luck. In this photo, Chinese dragon dancers perform at a fair at a local park on the fifth day of the Chinese Lunar New Year in Beijing, China.
Cancan Chu // Getty Images
The tradition of lighting firecrackers during Chinese New Year celebrations is intended to scare off an evil monster named Nian, who would come out to eat villagers and destroy their houses on New Year’s Eve. Here, a firework goes off on the eve of the Chinese New Year in Jinzhai County, Anhui province of China.
Early on the morning of New Year’s Day, children awaken to open their red envelopes, and the family goes door to door, greeting their relatives and neighbors. After this, many families head to the temple to pray. As shown above, a man prays at the Tin Hau Temple in the Yau Ma Tei area of Hong Kong on the fourth day of the Lunar New Year holiday.
GREG BAKER/AFP // Getty Images
On New Year’s Day morning, families visit the temple to pray to the god of wealth, Tsai Shen, offering incense and inviting the god into their homes. Firecrackers are lit again to welcome Tsai Shen in the new year. Pictured above, people pray and burn incense for good luck at the Lama Temple in Beijing.
MARK RALSTON/AFP // Getty Images
It is customary for worshippers to hang red ribbons on their temple doors to bring luck and prosperity. Here, Chinese prayer ribbons hang from a door at the Baoshan Temple in the Chinese border, Dandong.
China Photos // Getty Images
During celebrations at temples, it’s customary to throw coins into a well to wish for a year of good fortune and to please the god of wealth. Even tourists can participate in the tradition, with many coin vendors selling coins nearby. Above, a tourist buys coins at the White Cloud Temple in Beijing, China.
Jack Taylor // Getty Images
This traditional dance is performed on big occasions, including New Year’s. This dance is intended to bring luck while also chasing away evil spirits. The lion itself symbolizes power, wisdom, and superiority. Here, performers take part in a lion dance during the Chinese New Year parade in London, England.
New Year’s brings with it various parades over approximately 15 days of celebrations. Chinese New Year parades happen across the world, with performers dressing up to represent the incoming zodiac year or performing lion and dragon dances. Pictured above, parade performers dress up to welcome the Year of the Monkey in 2016 in Glasgow, Scotland.
Robertus Pudyanto // Getty Images
One way that celebrating countries pay tribute to their ancient folklore is by performing reenactments during celebrations. Folk pageantry customs can vary depending on the culture, but it’s a fun way for people to celebrate their ancient stories. As shown above, Cai Shen Ye (God of Fortune) gives red pockets to worshipers at the Hong San Ko Tee Temple during celebrations in Surabaya, Indonesia.
Ulet Ifansasti // Getty Images
The wishing tree is another Chinese tradition that is intended to usher in good luck for the year. Both tourists and locals flock to temples to write down their wishes for the new year on paper. The paper is then tied to an orange (for extra luck) and thrown onto the tree’s branches. According to legend, if the orange successfully sticks in the branches, the wish will come true. Above, people throw their wishes at a wishing tree as the community celebrates in Semarang, Indonesia.
Guang Niu // Getty Images
The night market is a temporary market that allows all who celebrate to gather and share meals, enjoy performances, and shop. In this photo, residents visit a night market to mark the Chinese New Year in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, China.
MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP // Getty Images
Chinese New Year has several cultural attractions that draw in tourists from around the world, keen to participate in the ancient traditions of the Lunar New Year. In Singapore, pineapple tarts attract hungry travelers, while Malaysia boasts one of the oldest and largest temples. Pictured above, devotees arrive to offer prayers at Malaysia’s famous Thean Hou temple decorated with red lanterns in Kuala Lumpur.
[Pictured: Devotees arrive to offer prayers at the Thean Hou temple decorated with red lanterns in Kuala Lumpur.]
In addition to the many parades and dances performed within the days-long celebrations, there are also cultural performances, including operas, stilts acts, and ballets. Here, an actor performs a Cantonese opera in Hong Kong during New Year Celebrations.
Lintao Zhang // Getty Images
While the Chinese New Year is celebrated worldwide, every country and region has its own unique traditions. This Chinese blacksmith, pictured above, is preparing to throw the molten metal against a cold stone wall to create sparks that appear like fireworks in Nuanquan, Hebei Province, China. This is just one example of a regional tradition to bring in the new year.
FRED DUFOUR/AFP // Getty Images
New Year’s is nothing if not a time to spend with the whole family. Because of this, many of the celebratory traditions involve children, including the maze at the Tang Paradise Park (pictured above) in Xi’an, China. Parades, markets, and performances are often intended to include the whole family.
AFP // Getty Images
In some cultures, as the celebrations wind down, people participate in the tradition of jumping over a bonfire. This signifies leaping into the new year and leaving the old year behind. Pictured here are people jumping over the bonfire to celebrate the lantern festival in Haikou, China.
PATRICK LIN/AFP // Getty Images
The last day of Chinese New Year is marked with the lantern festival on the first full moon of the new year. The festival marks the reunion of family and the return of spring and can be traced back to 2,000 years ago during the Han dynasty. Lanterns are decorated with drawings and wishes for the new year and then lit to float off into the sky. Above, Taiwanese bystanders watch as a string of sky lanterns are released in Taipei, Taiwan.