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Class Notes: Happy Lunar New Year - Year of the Pig!
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By KimOanh Nguyen-Lam

On January 1, we rang in 2019. On February 5, at least 15 million people in the United States and more than 1.5 billion worldwide celebrated the Lunar New Year. Many people think that honoring the Lunar New Year is just a Chinese tradition, but this event is observed with diverse and vibrant customs and festive activities in many countries throughout Asia. In the United States, Asian Americans from China, Laos, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam observe the Lunar New Year on the same day but call it by different names: Spring Festival for the Chinese, Tet Nguyen Dan for the Vietnamese, and Seollal for South Koreans. 

Although most Asian countries use the Western, or Gregorian, calendar for official activities, the lunar calendar is used to mark cultural festivals and rituals. When asked to describe the Lunar New Year celebration, many Asian Americans liken it to America’s Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and a birthday all rolled into one! On Lunar New Year’s Eve, homes and businesses set off strings of firecrackers to ring in the new year and scare away the evil spirits. Family members gather for big and extravagant meals of traditionally prepared foods. And for young people, it’s when they are gifted with red envelopes filled with crisp new bills, the amount of which is based on their age—the older you are, the more money you receive to signify your increased roles and responsibilities in the family. Children dress in new clothes and recite their New Year’s wishes to their elders, starting with grandparents and then parents—and often aunts and uncles, too. Most wishes center on longevity, good health, and prosperity; adults then offer the children a few words of wisdom and encouragement before handing out the red envelopes (known as “li xi”). 

Preparations for the Lunar New Year are as important as welcoming it. For adults, the close of the old year brings introspection—a reflection on the past year, including on one’s mistakes and failures. People often use this time to seek out old friends or associates with whom they have fallen out of touch and to renew friendships. People also use this time to resolve any past misunderstandings or conflicts so that the new year will begin in harmony and peace. Many believe in a spiritual cleansing of the bad habits or negative attitudes of the past in preparation for a bright and more fortuitous future. This belief is also reflected in the practice of domestic cleansing: to welcome the auspicious new year, people work hard to make their homes airy and spotless. 

On the first day of the new year, many families observe the tradition of ancestor honoring. Asian households often have a special space where photos of (great-)grandparents and/or ancestral tablets are displayed and revered. On Lunar New Year, this altar is prepared with fresh flowers, fruits, incense, and perhaps the ancestors’ favorite dishes. Parents use the occasion to share with their children stories of their past, their home village, and their roots. Each person lights incense to pay respect to the ancestors and asks for their blessings for a promising new year. Parents also stress the importance of honoring the family name by reminding young people to do good work and live with integrity. 

Some Fun Facts about the Lunar New Year

1. The Lunar New Year date changes each year! 
Although the date for Lunar New Year changes each year, it always falls between January 21 and February 20, determined by the lunar calendar. Lunar New Year 2019 began on Tuesday, February 5. It is often celebrated over many days. 

2. Every Lunar New Year starts a new animal’s zodiac year. 
There are 12 zodiac animals. In order, they are: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig; 2019 is a year of the pig. 

3. Everyone turns a year older on Lunar New Year’s Day.
Traditionally, people from the previously mentioned Asian countries did not celebrate individual birthdays. The Lunar New Year is like a collective birthday; on the first day of the Lunar New Year, regardless of when you were born, you gain a year.

4. Billions of red envelopes are exchanged.
Red is considered a color of luck and prosperity. Giving red envelopes stuffed with brand-new cash is a way to express good wishes and luck. Red envelopes are given out from older to younger, from bosses to employees, and from leaders to workers. It is a special way to show appreciation to those who support us all year long.

5. The Lunar New Year will be celebrated by a quarter of the world’s population.
The world’s population is roughly 7.7 billion, and almost 2 billion celebrate Lunar New Year in some way. In these countries many governmental offices and businesses are closed for at least three days so that workers may return to their hometowns to spend the holiday with family: mainland China (1.41 billion), Hong Kong (7 million), Macau (0.6 million), Indonesia (264 million), the Philippines (105 million), Vietnam (95 million), South Korea (51 million), Malaysia (31 million), North Korea (25 million), Taiwan (23 million), Singapore (5 million), and Brunei (0.4 million). 

The pig is the 12th of the zodiac animals in the lunar calendar. According to one myth, the Jade Emperor said the order of the 12 years in the cycle would be decided by the order in which the first 12 animals arrived to his party; the pig arrived last because it took its time. People born in the year of the pig are thought to have an easy life. The pig is also a symbol for wealth and fortune. May this year bring much fortune and prosperity to you all!

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