Lunar New Year is coming up on Feb. 12, celebrated on the 1st and 15th days of the new moon (Spring and Lantern Festivals) in the lunar calendar.
New Year 2021 is the Year of the Ox.
Families and friends get together, cook and share special foods (especially dumplings and sticky rice cakes), wear new clothes, decorate houses with symbols of luck and prosperity.
Lunar New Year, also called Chinese New Year, is celebrated in Asian countries, from Tibet to Vietnam, and in many cities around the world, with parades, music and dance, performances, lion and dragon dances.
New Year Legends
Origins of Chinese New Year is narrated in the legend of the Nian monster. There are many versions of this story, it could be it’s a little boy, beggar, old monk, other heroes, who confront the monster.
Each year, the Nian monster would come to earth and destroy whole villages. The old monk cleverly gave Nian some sticky rice cakes, the monster’s mouth stuck together so he couldn’t eat people. Then monk told the villagers that Nian doesn’t like loud noises or the color red, so they lit firecrackers, which scared away Nian, and the villagers were saved.
The Lantern Festival, ending the holiday, is celebrated with red lanterns and firecrackers.
In the mists of time, the Jade Emperor in Heaven was angry with people and tried to destroy the earth with fire. Instead the Jade Emperor’s daughter came to earth, and told everyone to light red lanterns and set off lots of exploding firecrackers. The Jade Emperor was fooled into thinking earth had burned up, so everyone was saved.
Parades, Lion and Dragon Dances
We are lucky to live in the San Franciso Bay Area, one of largest and oldest Chinese communities in the United States.
Here’s the Spring Festival Parade, with boys and girls drumming, dancing with scarves, Fu, Lu and Shou, three gods of prosperity, good fortune and longevity, drumming and martial arts, lion dances with yellow, red, black and white lions, even balancing on high poles, and red dragon dance, swooping and chasing a ball (which represents “pearl of wisdom” or sun for a good harvest).
Lantern Festival Parade is the finale of the New Year celebration. A spectacular nighttime parade through the streets of downtown San Francisco with huge figures zodiac animal of the year and lucky gods, marching bands, acrobats, lion dances and a huge dragon, carried by 100 people.
See how the Lunar New Year is celebrated in Bangkok. Yaowat Road is turned into a pedestrian mall of the first day of the festival. The street is lined with stalls, where vendors sell red clothes, red fruits such as pomegranates and strawberries (good luck for the coming year). Martial arts groups perform lion and dragon dances, stopping at merchants to bring luck and prosperity in the coming year.
Lucky New Year Symbols
The Lunar New Year is a time of new beginnings, and wishes for good fortune, prosperity, long life and abundance in the coming year.
Decorations, food, flowers, performances have special symbols and significance.
Read our separate blog post Lucky Symbols of Chinese New Year – to find out meaning of Three Star Gods Fu, Lu and Shou, fish, bamboo, mandarin oranges, firecrackers, lions, dragons, and more.
Here’s our favorite books to read about the Lunar New Year:
- Celebrate Chinese New Year by Carolyn Otto. Travel around the world to see celebrations of Chinese New Year – family feasts in China and fireworks in Taiwan on New Year’s Eve, parade of lantern lights in Japan, ice sculpture in Mongolia, parades and dragon dances in London, Vancouver and San Francisco. Gung Hay Fat Choy! (Picture book)
- Bringing in the New Year by Grace Lin. Families greet the Chinese New Year – sweep away the old year, cook special dishes, get a haircut, put on a new dress, enjoy a New Year’s feast, and carry lanterns to light the way. (Picture book)
- Dragon Dance by Joan Holub and Benrei Huang. Charming “lift the flap” book about Chinese New Year. Little kids can lift the flap to see house decorations “Good Luck and Good Fortune,” a feast with very long noodles, lion dancers, and last of all, the dragon. (Picture book)
- The New Year Dragon Dilemma by Ron Roy. In this Chinese New Year mystery adventure, a priceless ruby is stolen from Miss Chinatown during the San Francisco New Year’s parade. Can three kids find the real thief, and what’s the secret of Gum Lung? (Easy reader)
- My First Chinese New Year by Karen Katz – Delightful introduction to Chinese New Year for younger kids. A little girl sweeps away bad luck, gets a new red dress, helps make special foods with Grandma, shares a feast with all the relatives, and watches the New Year parade. Adorable illustrations. (Picture book)
- Long-Long’s New Year by Catherine Gower, He Zhihong – In a Chinese village, Long-Long has come to town with his grandpa to sell their cabbages and earn money for the New Year. Everything is a new adventure for Long-Long – bustle of the market, buying lucky words on red paper and presents for family, and returning home to happiness and good luck. Sparkling illustrations of traditional Chinese life. (Picture book)
- Gordon & Li Li Celebrate Chinese New Year by Michelle Wong McSween, Jeannie Chen – Celebrate Chinese New Year in English and Chinese with cousins Gordon and Li Li from China – traditions, the color red, home decorations, lucky foods, zodiac animals, special greetings Phonetic Mandarin pronunciation is very helpful. Gong xi cai fai – Wishing you prosperity! (Board book).
“Your future looks delicious.”
Every year we try out new recipes to celebrate the holiday. This year it’s Lion’s Head Meatballs, a specialty of Shanghai.
Here’s our recipe:
Lion’s Head Meatballs
1 pound ground pork
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon shaoxing cooking wine, mirin, or sake
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 green onion, chopped finely
1 teaspoon minced ginger
2 cloves garlic minced (up to 3)
2 eggs, beaten
1 pound bok choy, stems trimmed but otherwise intact
Vegetable oil for cooking meatballs
Combine ground pork, sugar, salt, Shaoxing (or mirin, sake), soy sauce, sesame oil, green onion, ginger, garlic.
Add cornstarch, mix well. Then add eggs until mixture is well blended.
Steam the bok choy.
In a pot with steamer, or a skillet with lid (add a little water), steam the bok choy for about 2 – 5 minutes (depending on size of boy choy) until cooked, but not limp. Keep warm.
Cook Jasmine rice to go with meatballs and bok choy.
Use ice cream scoop to make meatballs. Flatten into patties.
Pour some oil into large frying pan. Cook meatballs on medium low heat, about 3 minutes until browned, flip over to other side, cook 3 minutes more, than cook until meatballs are done.
In large bowl, put in large scoop of rice, put in meatballs, surround with boy choy to make a “green mane” around the meatballs.
For sweets and desserts, we go to Golden Gate Bakery (Grant St. in San Francisco Chinatown) to buy Fortune cakes, coconut and custard tarts, cookies and more. (Prepare to wait in line.)
Lunar New Year 2021 Online
During the pandemic, museums have online family days and activities to celebrate Lunar New Year.
Saturday – Feb. 6
Family Day Asia Society
Sunday – Feb. 7
Losar – Tibetan New Year Family Day
Friday – Feb. 12 – 19
Oakland Asian Cultural Center
Saturday Feb. 13
The Met – Virtual Lunar New Year