How to Celebrate the Upcoming Lunar New Year

The Lunar New Year starts this Sunday, January 22 and I for one had to do a double take when fact-checking this date. Usually, the new year starts in February, but I guess it’s fitting since this year will be Rabbit Year – so speed away!

While you may not celebrate it within your family, it’s fun to partake in other’s traditions. Celebrations I found are excellent ways to appreciate and understand a new way to see life in a fun and inviting way.

Coming from a super traditional background, ( sometimes painfully so – re: growing up with a so-called tiger mom in modern western society ), here are some ways to prepare and celebrate the upcoming lunar new year.

Since this is a holiday surrounding family, many of these I fact-checked with my own mother, whose family was also considered extremely traditional even when she was growing up. But do note, different families and cultures will do things differently. This is meant to be a fun guide and introduction for those who want to learn more.

Prepping for the New Year

1. Clean Your House

Definitely try to aim for this one if you haven’t already pre-cleaned for 2023’s new year. The aim is to get rid of old energy that might be bad or stagnant and make room for the good energy coming in for the new year. Anything broken, like old clothes or cups that don’t bring you joy ( Yes, I do love the Marie Kondo method ) can be kindly let go for their service.

Sweep and dust everything. A deep cleaning isn’t required, but go as ham as you want. This is meant to be uplifting and motivating for the new year.

2. Get New Clothes

This is probably everyone’s favorite. The New Year is the perfect excuse to go binge shopping. You can buy clothes, socks, lingerie – any apparel.

You don’t need to spend a lot here if you don’t want to. Like I said, socks can work, too. The aim is bring a new things into your life.

If you are going to any family gatherings, wearing new clothes is a good idea as well. Though anything red will always be perfectly suitable.

3. Get a Haircut

This might be strange to some, but the idea here is to again get rid of the energy of last year and invite fresh new good energy for this one.

You can use this as an excuse to go to the salon and change up your style for 2023. You can also just do a trim. Yup, even the ends count.

Use this opportunity to try something fresh and new. Why not a new color while you are at it?

Remember to support local salons and always remember to tip your stylist. You can use red envelopes to hold your money gifts.

4. Red Envelopes ( Hong Bao )

Red Envelopes ( Also known as red pockets or red paper ), are given during New Year’s times to show appreciation. Inside is usually cash bills that are brand new. Use only new bills from the bank or it might be considered disrespectful.

Typically, only those who are married give red envelopes. This comes from an old idea that once you are married you are an adult. It is an honor to be able to give red envelopes. I am single, so I shall enjoy my non-status of not having to give money to relatives.

However, anyone can give red pockets as appreciation for those in the service industry. If you are giving it to your hairstylist for a cut, note that tips ( or prices ) are doubled during this time. I personally think giving extra appreciation for those in the service industry is a wonderful thing as they do so much unseen labour and that goes underpaid and often unappreciated.

5. Red Paper and Red Decorations

While shopping in Chinatown, you might see a lot of giant blocks of red signs with golden text on it. Many of these say Good Fortune, Good Business etc. I can’t read Chinese unfortunately and forget characters quite often, so I’m always asking sellers what each sign means.

Place these on entryways such as your front door. They invite the energy for your message to come in. You can opt for the super cute decorations with rabbits on them or go for a more elegant gilded look.

You don’t have to go far or spend a lot. You’ll find most Asian owned 99 cents in New York City will be selling decorations. You can also go to areas with large Asian communities lovingly known as Chinatown(s).

I put an “s” because there are three major ones ( but not the only areas obviously to find decorations ).

In South Brooklyn, you have 8th Ave Chinatown ( around 63rd st to 58th st is best to aim for ). In Manhattan you have your major Chinatown which has its own real estate label on Google Maps. Get off at Grand St. on the D line for easy access. In Queens you have Flushing. Last stop on the 7 line you will get off right in the center of it all. There is a lot of good food there so it could be worth the ride if you are coming from a further location.

Though just go to your local 99 cents store and take a gander. Just know to ask for what the message means and bring cash in case the store doesn’t take card.

New Year’s Eve and Day Activities

Many families, including mine, celebrate the new year starting on the evening before. This year it will be on January 21. Here is where you have a family reunion, sometimes with generations gathering in one room, and dinner. Wear something new and/or something red. Red is considered a very lucky color.

Honoring Spirits

Prior to the meal, you take time to honor, celebrate and thank your ancestors. Offerings are given in the form of food, wine, or paper for burning as well as incense. You let the ancestors “eat first”. In Asian culture, their is a lot of importance placed on your elders, this includes your ancestors. When the incense is burned, our family considers their meal finished and then we have our own.

In our household, we also do another setup of lighting incense and showing respect for the house spirits. This is for showing thanks to entities that show guidance and support that aren’t ancestors but still deserve that show of appreciation.

The Dinner

A lot of food selections during New Year’s holds symbolism based on how the word sounds in Chinese. Maybe you can’t get these exact dishes, but here is a short cheat-sheet on common dishes seen at New Year’s and why.

  • Rice Cakes (Nian Gao) – most important, rice sounds like “year” and cake sounds like “higher/better” in Chinese. In general, rice cakes, sweet glutinous rice balls, or rice products are good to have.
  • Fish – means surplus. Usually a whole fish is prepared and the head and tail are left so that there is “food for the next year” which can be consumed the next day.
  • Fruit / Apple, oranges – Apple in chinese is “ping guo” and sounds like peace. Which we all can use more of. Oranges sounds like “luck”.
  • Vegetables – Lettuce and baby bok choy are great options. In general, greens = money. So eat lots of veggies.
  • Whole Chicken – Chicken or “ji” sounds like good luck
  • Dumplings– Wealth
  • Radish Cake ( Lobo Gao ) – rooted material, grounding, earthy support

These make the core of the meal but other great options are spring rolls, shrimp/seafood, longevity noodles ( or noodles in general ) and of course make sure you have some alcohol to accompany your meal. Hot rice wine ( sake ) tastes amazing with steamed fish. I may break my Dry January for it this year.

After the meal, you can hand out red envelopes, shoot fireworks or sparklers ( since NYC has strict firework rules ), and play betting games such as mahjong to test your new year’s luck. Stay up late, listen to music, and catch up with family and friends.

For wishing people Happy New Year in Chinese:

Cantonese: Gong Hei Fat Choy

Mandarin: Gong Xi Fa Cai

There is also “X?n nián h?o” which means “Good Year” and the longer version “x?n nián kuài lè”.

The celebrations continue for two weeks where you can see Lion dances in the city visit businesses for good luck. Note: Lion dances are not Dragon dances. Dragons are upwards of 20 people or more and only occur during dragon year. So wait next year in 2024 to see those.

Overall, celebrate with whomever you choose and use this time to get excited about the new year and all the wonderful things it’s going to bring.

Sophia Calderone

Sophia is a native Brooklynite with a deep love for food, drink and solo-travel. Previously a techie in the agency world, she has now swan-dived into more creative endeavors. She has a strong taste for whiskey with a growing spreadsheet of past affairs and can be seen eating anything from dollar pizza to Michelin star restaurants meals. Sophia is also a cat-lover holding a TNR certification and can be found taking care of community cats or professionally pet-sitting someone’s fur baby.