Asian New Year’s Celebrations: China, Korea, Japan
by Ejin Jeong
The sparkling wine, the ball drop, the fireworks, the tacky sunglasses, the awkward kiss, the list of resolutions that will most likely be forgotten by January 5th; these are all New Year’s traditions of a New Year’s with which people in America are quite familiar. We don a sparkly dress or tuxedo at the anticipated New Year’s party and scream “HAPPY NEW YEAR!” once the timer reaches zero. When thinking of New Years, most Americans usually do not picture the color red, dragons, money, or kites. The beauty of New Year’s is that there is a diversity of traditions that vary from culture to culture. Much of Korean and Japanese culture has strong influence from Chinese culture, and this is true for New Year’s traditions as well. The lunisolar Chinese calendar is also used in Japan and Korea.
Contrary to the consistent date of January 1st, the Chinese New Year, also called the Spring Festival, or the Lunar New Year, falls on a different date every year due to the lunar-solar calendar. It begins on the second new moon after the winter solstice and is one of the most important holidays in Chinese culture. The celebration lasts fifteen days as many citizens feast with their family and honor their ancestors.
The 2016 Chinese New Year is on February 8th, commencing the year of the Monkey. Identified as the most famous element of the Chinese New Year is the 12 year-cycle of the animal zodiac. The Chinese New Year celebrations begin eight days before the New Year. Days before the New Year, Chinese families will clean out their houses to “sweep away the bad luck” of the preceding year and to invite more good luck to their households. There is also an array of red paper decorations and paint in doors and window frames. The short time span before the New Year is a moment for families to begin a new start, which can be symbolized by getting a haircut, paying off debts, or buying new clothes.
Dragons are a crucial symbol of the Chinese New Year because they symbolize prosperity, good luck, and good fortune. The most important event of the Chinese New Year is the Reunion Dinner; in Chinese, the “Nian Ye Fan.” Families gather to eat specialized meat dishes. After the big dinner at around midnight, it is customary to eat dumplings in Northern China because they symbolize wealth. However, in Southern China is it tradition to bake Niango, new year cake, and to gift it to friends and relatives. On the fifteenth day of the New Year, the Festival of Lanterns takes place to mark the end of the New Year celebrations. All kinds of lanterns are lit throughout streets, sometimes with poems or riddles written on them. Red envelopes full of money are given to children and an array of fireworks and firecrackers display a show of lights in the night sky.
During the three-day holiday of Seolnal (Korean New Year), people all over Korea travel to their hometowns to spend time with their family. Similar to the Chinese New Year, South Korea follows the Lunar New Year and the date for the beginning of the New Year changes according to the solar-lunar calendar. In South Korea, children wish their elders a happy new year by dressing up in hanbok, traditional Korean clothing, and bowing deeply to the floor while reciting “saehae bok mani badeuseyo,” translating to "Please receive a lot of luck in the New Year.” Afterwards, elders will reward this gesture by giving the children money in luck bags. Tteokguk, which is a traditional Korean soup with rice cakes, is eaten on the New Year to recognize the aging of one year. A serving of Jeon which is a special Korean type of pancake is also eaten. There are several folk games played on the Korean New Year, such as Yunnori, a traditional Korean game involving sticks; or, men and boys will fly kites called Yeon.
As the digital numbers countdown to 0 and the minute hand reaches 12, the Times Square ball reaches the end of the pole and confetti explodes, raining on the couples kissing each other to celebrate the new year. 6,738 miles away from this scene in Times Square, Buddhist temples all over Japan ring bells 108 times, symbolizing the start of the New Year. The ringing of the bells represent the removal of the 108 Buddhist sins in humans. Five years after the Meiji Restoration, Japan has begun to follow the Gregorian calendar.
The most important holiday in Japan, the New Year, is a time for people to spend time with their family and to celebrate longevity and hope. A common Japanese tradition is to send New Year’s Day postcards to friends and family with drawings or messages. The Japanese also have a custom of giving money to young children on New Year’s Day in small envelopes called pochibukuro. Bonenkai parties are held to leave the past year’s troubles behind in order to begin a fresh new start. Traditional Japanese food for the New Year is called osechi. Osechi consists of many different kinds of food, such as buckwheat noodles, mochi, fish cakes, and mashed sweet potato with chestnut. The New Year is started by viewing the sunrise on January 1st followed by a visit to a shrine or temple.
Although many Asian countries have their special traditions for New Year’s in today’s age, many celebrate both by the Gregorian calendar and by the Lunar calendar. The celebration of the New Year symbolizes new hope and new beginnings for a prosperous new year.
Ejin is a High School sophomore from Philadelphia. A proud leader of the Girl Up and UNICEF clubs at her school, she is also a part of the leadership action team for SPARK Movement. Ejin wishes to incorporate photography and writing to send a message and spread awareness to the public about homelessness as well as feminism and societal issues women face.