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With the onset of spring and the promise of warmer weather, countries across the Asia-Pacific begin preparations for their own versions of Lunar New Year—some based on the lunisolar calendar, and others by the annual transition from winter to spring. And whilst there are some shared practices and traditions between Asian communities, each country’s own version of the festival is imbued with its unique culture and history. Join us as we deep-dive into how Lunar New Year is traditionally celebrated across Asia.
The Japanese term “Setsubun” translates literally into “seasonal division,” and although the application of the term can be to each seasonal transition, only the shift from winter to spring is marked and widely celebrated.
Historically, the Japanese believed that the divide between the real world and supernatural realm is weakest and most easily crossed on Setsubun, and thus, they perform a ritual called mame-maki (豆撒き; “bean scattering”) to drive away unwanted spirits. Mame-maki involves the throwing of roasted fukumame (福豆; soybeans) outside the house to chase away the oni (おに; evil spirits). In some households, fathers might even dress up as the oni to give the kids something to throw their fukumame at. As families throw handfuls of soybeans out the door, they will shout, “Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!”—which means “Oni out, happiness in!”
After the ceremony, it is common practice to consume part of the leftover soybeans. Each person eats the number of beans equivalent to their age, plus one year as means of ensuring happiness and good fortune for the coming year.
As per tradition, each person will also eat ehōmaki (えほうまき; “good luck direction roll”), which is an entire maki sushi roll left uncut so as to avoid the risk of cutting off good fortune, whilst standing silently and facing an auspicious direction. Although Japan’s new year celebrations and rituals have shifted to align with the Gregorian calendar, Setsubun continues to maintain its role in Japanese tradition as a festival for cleansing and ringing in good fortune with the end of winter.
Fun fact: Hiiragi-iwashi (ひいらぎいわし), or grilled sardine heads on holly branches, are hung over household entry points to ward off unwanted spirits with its strong scent.
Unsurprisingly, the main events of Seollal—the first day of the Korean calendar—revolve around family-oriented events and ancestral rituals. Traditionally, family members will visit each other and sebae (세배; “worshipping elders”). This is a sign of filial piety that is deeply rooted in Korean culture, and involves younger family members performing a traditional bow on their knees whilst wishing older family members, “Saehae bok mani badeuseyo,” or “Please receive good fortunes for this new year.”
In return, they are rewarded with sebaet don (세뱃돈; pocket money in silk bags). Families will also bring Seollal gifts, a practice passed on from those travelling home to the countryside with gifts for family members. These gifts are normally financially-friendly and practical, such as sugar or eggs, but Korean shops have started selling pricier gift sets, with items like ginseng and sikhye (식혜; sweet Korean rice beverage).
Koreans will perform an ancestral ritual known as charye (차례), in which foods are prepared and presented to the ancestors. Afterwards, the food is consumed by the family in a ceremony called eumbok (음복), which is thought to then pass on ancestral blessings. Tteokguk (떡국; rice cake soup) is also served. Although commonly eaten throughout the year, its role during Seollal is to mark a person’s lunar calendar birthday. Thus, what sets Seollal apart is that it is also seen as a birthday party for the entire nation!
Fun fact: Koreans use the term “myun cheol chung hu fun”—“post-holiday trauma”—to refer to the post-holiday exhaustion caused by long-distance travel to meet relatives, the excessive intake of food, and handling massive clean-ups after Seollal visitors have left!
The Vietnamese New Year, Tết Nguyên Đán, translates literally into the “Feast of the First Morning of the First Day,” and is used as an occasion to demonstrate respect and veneration towards the ancestors and elder family members. Families travel long distances for reunions and to start off the year together, and mark the occasion with new clothes and handing out lucky money in red envelopes.
Sweeping is seen as bad luck, as it symbolises “sweeping away good luck,” and thus, people begin to prepare and clean their homes for the festivities well in advance. Kumquat trees, which symbolise fertility, are displayed. In the north, a branch of pink peach flowers named hoa đào is placed by the door, whereas southern regions favour golden apricot blossoms called hoa mai instead. Drums, firecrackers, and loud noisemakers make for a loud and rancorous festive atmosphere as people take to the streets to scare off evil spirits.
The Vietnamese also believe that the first person to cross into a household will bring either good or bad luck. Therefore, it is common practice to wait to be invited, rather than showing up uninvited, with invitations favouring wealthier, well-respected individuals. In fact, there’s even a special term for the first visitor: xông đất, xông nhà, or đạp đất.
True to its name, food places a central role in Tết celebrations. Some of the feature dishes include bánh tét, a Vietnamese cake made of glutinous sticky rice; bánh chưng, made of glutinous rice with mung beans and pork wrapped in dong or banana leaves and shaped into a square to represent Earth; and bánh dày, which is a flat, white, and round Vietnamese cake used to represent Heaven.
Fun fact: It is not an uncommon practice for a member of the household to leave prior to midnight and re-enter a few minutes into New Year’s Day, as the first person to enter to avoid any possibility of an unfit visitor bringing bad luck for the year!
Tsagaan Sar, or the Mongolian New Year, revolves around two distinctive features of Mongolian lifestyle and history—extreme winters and a nomadic lifestyle. This period is referred to as the “White Moon” and symbolises the abundance of milk products, such as milk, cheese, butter, and curds, due to the arrival of spring. Likewise, due to the nomadic lifestyle of Mongolians, Tsagaan Sar provided an occasion for annual visits between otherwise roaming families to catch up and start the year off with well-wishes.
Preparations begin months prior with the making of hundreds of buuz (Бууз; Mongolian steamed dumplings), which are then frozen and later steamed for the festival. Families gather together to make the filling and dough and pass on family recipes across the generations.
Additionally, the day before Tsagaan Sar is known as Bituun, and it has an emphasis on the erasure of the bad, including paying off debts and resolving arguments. Households and herders alike do deep cleansing of their homes and barns to prepare for a new year. Families believe that the deity Palden Lhamo, seen as the protectress of Mongolia, will pass through in the night, so they place three pieces of ice at their doorway for her horse to drink.
It is customary to get up early the morning of Tsagaan Sar to welcome in the dawn of a new year. Each person must take their first steps of the year in a “lucky and auspicious” direction, calculated based on the lunar new year of their birth. The day is then filled with visits to relatives, largely with younger families going to the homes of older families as a sign of respect.
When greeting elders, Mongols perform the zolgokh (Золгох) greeting, grasping the elbows of the opposite person to demonstrate their support. After the greeting ceremony, families will feast on various traditional Mongolian dishes, such as steamed buuz, rice with curds or raisins, and mutton. There is also a dessert named boortsog (боорцог), which is a traditional Mongolian cookie that is arranged in a mountainous shape to visually represent Mount Sumeru.
Fun fact: The customary drink on the morning of Tsagaan Sar is milk tea, which is considered an auspicious drink. Many people will only have milk tea for breakfast to save their stomachs for a day of feasting!
Considering how April temperatures in Thailand can break 30 degrees Celsius, it’s no surprise the Thai New Year celebrations involve a countrywide water fight! Coinciding with the dry season, Songkran, which literally means “to pass, to move into” both symbolically and practically acts as a refreshing start to the year.
The most famous part of Songkran is the water fight, drawing both locals and tourists to the streets with hoses, water balloons, and buckets to douse those around. Given Thailand’s farming industry, rainfall is crucial, and water during the festival symbolises the hope for plentiful rainfall in the coming year. Thai revellers will also pour mixtures of water and fragrances on Buddha images as an act of cleaning.
There is a parallel bathing ritual where worshippers pour water over senior Buddhist monks, who then conduct sermons and bless those who attended the ritual. This act of pouring water over something or someone is seen as an act of purification, with the aim being to wash away one’s sins and undesirable luck prior to a new year. Thai Buddhists will also visit the temples to build sand chedi (เจดีย์), which are sandcastles that resemble a Buddhist temple.
Aside from cleansing in preparation for the new year, the Thai also perform acts of merit building or merit offering. On top of starting the year with cleansing rituals, they will conduct acts of service and giving, such as giving offerings to the temples and providing sand for construction and repair, as well as releasing birds, fish, buffaloes, cows, and more.
Fun fact: As part of merit-making activities, temples will hold fairs, in which the Thai public can play games, with money raised from games being reallocated to temple maintenance and support.
The Cambodian New Year, Chaul Chnam Thmey (បុណ្យចូលឆ្នាំថ្មី), is a festival that marks the start of a new year and is based on the sun entering the sign of Aries. For the farming industry, it is the short window prior to the onset of the rainy season and thus, a time for farmers to rest and enjoy the “literal” fruits of their labour.
Chaul Chnam Thmey is divided into three days of festivities, reflecting different traditions and values in Cambodian culture. Moha Songkran, the first day, is the day that heavenly angels created the world, according to Cambodian beliefs. In order to honour and welcome the angels, families will do a deep cleaning of their homes and fill them with lit candles to create a fresh, warm, and inviting space. Families also pay their respect to Buddha by burning incense at shrines and performing three deep bows (kneeling, bowing, and prostrating). Cambodians will also perform a type of ritual bathing by washing their faces, chest, and feet with holy water in the morning, afternoon, and night, respectively.
Vireak Vanabat, the second day, is characterised by humility and giving back to the community and less fortunate. Cambodians will donate to charities or participate in events that aid the poor, servants, and homeless. In addition, families will partake in dedication ceremonies at monasteries for their ancestors, and exchange gifts with family members. Traditionally, this has taken the form of building sand hillocks at the temples, with the largest central peak representing the burial grounds of Buddha’s hair and diadem, and the surrounding four representing Buddha’s disciples.
On the last day, T’ngai Loeng Sak, Buddhists use scented water to wash Buddha statues, both as a symbol of cleanliness and purity and as an act to ensure enough rainfall for the coming year. Similarly, children will perform a washing and bathing ritual for their parents and grandparents. In return, they will receive blessings and advice for the coming year.
Fun fact: One of the traditional foods of this festive period is kralan (ក្រឡាន), which is a cake consisting of steamed rice, beans or peas, grated coconut, and coconut milk. It is stuffed into a bamboo stick and roasted.
Losar, the Tibetan New Year, is divided into two main periods—wrapping up the old year and welcoming the new year. The two days preceding New Year’s Day are referred to as Nyishu-gu, during which families will make Gu-thug. 12 special dough balls are made with different symbolic items stuffed in them, each item representing a positive or negative human trait. The dough balls are then cooked into a pot of porridge or noodles.
Family members are served one of the dough balls by a blindfolded female relative, and spend the meal celebrating receiving a “good” dough ball or laughing at those who receive “bad” dough balls. Families will also create glud, a proxy scapegoat made of dough or broken items in the house, onto which all the bad luck, curses, ill-wishes, and negative trait dough balls are cast onto. This scapegoat is dragged out of the house to the nearest crossroads and surrounded by flaming torches. Oftentimes, smaller celebrations are held there to mark the banishment of evil. The next day, Nam-gang, is dedicated to the preparation and decoration of altars.
There is variation in how long different Tibetan regions celebrate Losar, but all celebrations treat the first three days as the most crucial and important time. On the first day, Lama-Losar, Tibetans visit monasteries to pay respect to lamas and in return, receive blessings for the following year. This day is traditionally reserved for family time. The next day, Gyalpo-Losar, is for official public celebrations and festivities. And on the final day, Chokyong-Losar, is dedicated to honouring guardian deities and spirits with the hoisting of prayer flags, as “chokyong” literally translates to “guardian deities.”
Tibetans are careful in their arrangements of chod-shom, or holy altars. These altars are seen as the Tibetan way of demonstrating gratitude and asking for blessings for the new year. The centrepiece is Derkha, which is a pile of Khases (Tibetan fried cookies) on top of Bongbu-achok, a dough fried in hot boiling oil. There are different ways of arranging Derkha, but official public ones are always arranged with the mouth facing downwards, whereas private ones are face up. Families will put snacks and delicacies into the upward-facing mouth. This difference is largely attributed to the idea that public officials should listen to public thoughts and opinions and a downward-facing Derhka reflects that sense of humility.
In addition, Tibetans also place seven bowls, signifying seven different offerings to Buddha. Yon-chab is the offering for teachings, Lo-puth is an offering of young wheat shoots for a good harvest, Chang-phuth holds the first bowl of Tibetan barley beer made for the New Year, Lug-go holds a sheep's head made out of dough, and Chemar refers to wheat grains and roasted barley flour, separated and placed into a wooden container called Bo.
Fun fact: Upside-down Derkha may also be a reference to how bowls and utensils are kept upside down in Tibetan households. Deities are known to chase away ghosts and spirits, who try to hide under kitchen items as deities are too pure to go under objects of human use.