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What to know about Lunar New Year: The Year of the Dragon

BEIJING, CHINA - FEBRUARY 10: A Chinese folk artist rides in a sedan chair by performers waiting to take part in a traditional dragon dance for the Chinese Lunar New Year at a local temple fair on February 10, 2024 in Beijing, China. China ushered in the Year of the Dragon on the first day of the Lunar New Year and Spring Festival on February 10th. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)  (Kevin Frayer)
By Adela Suliman Washington Post

Over 1 billion people around the globe are celebrating the Lunar New Year, often referred to as Chinese New Year, this weekend. Out with the quick-witted rabbit and in with the auspicious, fiery dragon for 2024.

The festival is a time for family, friends and feasting - often prompting the world’s largest annual migration of people. You can wish friends and colleagues a happy new year by saying “gong hei fat choy” in Cantonese or “xin nian kuai le” (pronounced “shin nyen kwai le”) in Mandarin.

Here’s what to know about the festival and its zodiac animal.

What is Lunar New Year?

Lunar New Year, or the Spring Festival, is celebrated in China and much of Asia, including Korea, Vietnam and Singapore, as well as among the global Asian diaspora.

It has many origin stories.

The most common is a legend that the celebrations have their origins in an effort to scare away a beast called “Nian” (which means “year” in Chinese) which stalked cities and villages each spring, attacking people. Because Nian was afraid of loud noises, fire and the color red, people used firecrackers and red paper to frighten the mythical creature away.

What is the meaning of Lunar New Year?

The holiday symbolizes a hopeful transition from the cold winter to the season of renewal.

It is a largely secular holiday but includes cultural rituals that derive from Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism, as well as from ancient myths and folk traditions.

Some of the world’s biggest Lunar New Year celebrations are now held outside Asia, with one of the most noteworthy in San Francisco. In California, the festival was recognized for the first time as an official state holiday last year.

Lanterns and gifts of money in red envelopes are ubiquitous, along with dragon dances aimed at chasing away evil spirits.

When is Lunar New Year?

Celebrations for Lunar New Year are determined by the phases of the moon. Technically, the holiday begins during the second new moon after the winter solstice. As a result, it falls on different dates each year.

This year, the New Year began on Feb. 10.

Celebrations often last several days and the New Year period culminates with the Lantern Festival, this year held on Feb. 24.

What does the Year of the Dragon represent?

The Chinese zodiac system assigns each year to one of 12 animals. In 2024, it will be the Year of the Dragon.

Those (like this author) born in dragon years, recently including 2012, 2000, 1988, 1976, 1964 and 1952, according to the zodiac system, are said to be visionary leaders with a strong sense of self, energetic, determined, idealistic and independent. Their shortcomings include pride and a lack of willpower.

The dragon is a revered symbol of power and thought to be among the most auspicious of signs. Some leaders in Asia are encouraging their populations to choose this year to have children, to battle declining birthrates with “dragon babies” destined for success.

Last year was the Year of the Rabbit, a zodiac animal that symbolizes being quick-witted and empathetic. Next year will be the Year of the Snake, with traits including malevolence, mystery, deep thinking and acumen.

How do people celebrate Lunar New Year?

Food, family and friends play a significant role. Each family may have their own special traditions to ring in the Lunar New Year, but there are a few common staples.

Red envelopes, known as “hong bao” in Mandarin, are stuffed with crisp bank notes and given by elders to young children as gifts. Many people wear red or hang up decorations in red and gold - colors that traditionally signify good fortune.

Fireworks are also common and are traditionally believed to drive away bad luck and spirits. They normally accompany large street parades featuring dancing, floats and costumes of lions and dragons. Some people clean their homes thoroughly, hang out lanterns, visit religious temples or partake in ancestor worship to honor their dead.

Food is central to the celebrations, with feasts served and family members preparing dumplings together. Food is also symbolic. For example, long noodles signify hope for a long life, while fish is also popular because the Chinese word for fish sounds like the word for surplus, granting plenty for the year ahead.

In Vietnam, some families make “mut tet,” a tray of sweets placed at a family altar as a sign of respect to ancestors. In Korea, many eat “tteok guk,” a rice cake soup symbolizing that they are officially a year older, with hopes for another prosperous year ahead. A raw fish dish, “yusheng,” also known as “prosperity toss salad,” is traditional to the celebrations of the Chinese diaspora in Malaysia and Singapore, while “kue nastar,” or pineapple tarts, are eaten in Indonesia.