Lunar New Year — as known as Spring Festival or Chinese New Year — began throughout many Asian cultures last Saturday, Jan. 25, marking the beginning of 15 days worth of celebrations, and ending on Feb. 8. With celebrations in Vietnam, Korea, Singapore, Laos and many others, the Lunar New Year is the largest public holiday in Asia. It’s also celebrated by many Asian American families all across the world, including in Portland.
The zodiac sign for 2020 is the year of the rat. The rat is the first of the 12 Chinese zodiac signs. People born in the year of the rat are believed to be optimistic, energetic and liked by all. According to ancient legend, when the zodiac sign for the Lunar New Year is the same as the year you were born, you will have your unluckiest year of the 12-year cycle.
“One cultural practice to prevent bad things from happening to you is always wear a little bit of red, every single day,” said Jennifer Fang, a professor of history as well as former assistant director of the Portland Chinatown Museum. “That will keep the bad things at bay.”
Lunar New Year celebrations go back about 3,500 years. It’s believed to have begun during the Shang Dynasty (1600–1046 BC). Throughout the hundreds of years that this holiday has been celebrated, there are many different ways this celebration has taken place. However, they are all based around the ancient legend that a monster named Nian would come to the villages and torment villagers on New Year’s Eve.
To scare away Nian and evil spirits, villagers would go out into the streets and perform the customs they believed would bring them good fortune and good luck.
According to Fang, the holiday is about new beginnings and fresh starts. People try to usher in the good and push out the bad from the previous year.
“In Chinese culture, there's a custom of banging pots and pans at night to ward off the bad spirits,” Fang said. “You're also supposed to wear red on New Year's day because red is a color of good fortune and good luck.”
The Lunar New Year typically begins on the first new moon of the lunar calendar and ends on the first full moon of the lunar calendar, 15 days later. According to the Gregorian Calendar, there is no set date for the Lunar New Year but ranges from Jan. 21 to Feb. 20.
“In Portland, they put on a New Year’s Lion and Dragon Dance,” said senior Joanna Tran, president of Chinese Cultural Club. “I don't know if it's legal, but some places also put off firecrackers. A lot of people get together with family to eat, put up red decorations, and hand out red envelopes of money. It's kind of like lucky money, you're not really supposed to spend it. The idea is that it will bring you good fortune throughout the rest of the year.”
Throughout the Lunar New Year celebrations, family and serving one’s ancestors become increasingly important. Another custom is the burning of fake money in honor of deceased ancestors.
“You see this happening a lot on the street, people have a little outdoor fireplace/chimney type things. You buy this fake paper money that is really easily burned,” Fang said. “As you burn it, and the smoke is supposed to rise into the sky to your ancestors so that your ancestors who are in heaven can have money.”
One of the most important parts of the Lunar New Year is based on families gathering together. This can include leaving or going to Asia, as well as travel from cities to more rural parts of the country to visit loved ones. Due to this, travel surrounding this holiday is the largest human migration in the world.
“I don't know for sure where people are going but there is a lot of movement,” Fang said. “I mean it's like when people talk about how bad traveling is the day before Thanksgiving.”
“It was really unfortunate that the coronavirus broke out at this time because a lot of families travel back home to get together, but they weren't able to do that because of the virus,” Tran said.
Havi Stewart is a reporter for The Beacon. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.