Lunar New Year Celebrations in East Asia 

Growing up in Australia’s metropolitan cities like Sydney and Melbourne, there is a high likelihood that you’ve come across Lunar New Year celebrations hosted at your local suburb or Chinatown. As we welcome the Year of the Rabbit (兔年 in Chinese and계묘년 in Korean), this blog looks at how the holiday is celebrated in these two East Asian nations to provide insights for those living or working in the region.

Note: While in this blog we will focus on exploring how the holiday is celebrated in China and Korea, there is also a wealth of traditions to discover throughout Asia – including the Tết Lunar New Year in Vietnam.

What is Lunar New Year?

Following the lunar calendar, Lunar New Year is celebrated in different parts of Asia, each with its unique set of traditions and names for the holiday.

In China (and in Chinese diaspora communities around Asia and the globe) the celebration is known as the “Spring Festival” or 春节 Chūnjié. The annual festival lasts for 15 days, beginning with the new moon that occurs sometime between January 21 and February 20 according to Western calendars. In 2023, this covered the public holiday period between January 21 – January 27. Steeped in centuries of tradition, there are set activities associated with each day of the holiday – which culminates with the lantern festival (元宵节 Yuan Xiao Festival, also known as Chinese Valentine’s Day) on the 15th and final day (February 5 in 2023).

Read more about each Chinese Lunar New Year day and associated traditions here.

Whether you’ve experienced Chinese New Year abroad or in China – the bustling festivities are characterized by the colour red (symbolizing luck in Chinese culture). Similar to Christmas celebrations in the West, Chinese New Year sees cities decorated with red lanterns, shop-fronts stocked with red clothes and accessories, bustling holiday markets, family reunions with special festive dishes, and red envelopes with money gifted between colleagues, friends and family members.

Chinese New Year market in Beijing/ photo taken by author.

Coming from Beijing to Seoul, it was surprising to discover that Lunar New Year, while also being one of Korea’s most important traditional holidays, did not have the same boisterous festive community feeling as in China. In Korea, Lunar New Year known as 설날 “Seollal” comes with a more modest 2-3 days of public holidays (in 2023 this fell on the weekend and two weekdays between January 21-24) and is characterized as being a family celebration. Nevertheless, while the streets might be missing festive red lanterns, you can spot the zodiac animal of the year (with the Rabbit taking over from the Tiger in 2023) throughout the city – popping up in public parks, cafes, or posters.

Curious about the role that the 12-year zodiac plays in contemporary Korean society? Check out this link to learn more about the tradition and how it fits with other trends like MBTI personality tests.

Travel and Culture 

In both Korea and China, family reunion lies at the heart of the Lunar New Year celebration. Both countries experience a large exodus of people travelling away from the big cities to their hometowns – so if you are planning to travel during this period it is essential to book train tickets in advance, avoid buses (given that traffic congestion can add several hours to your planned trip) and be ready for the crowds.

Korea tip: For those based in Seoul and looking to do some travel, exploring destinations reachable by public subway/ local train (such as Incheon, Gapyeong) or within 1-hour drive/ bus ride (such as Suwon, Gongju, or Icheon) are great day-trips to consider!

In Korea, the Seollal celebration is usually held at the house of the eldest relative (for instance, a grandparent) and tends to be organized by the eldest son of that family branch. In modern Korea, there is a large variation in how traditional each family celebration ends up being – but it is handy to have an idea of this tradition spectrum when engaging with Korean colleagues and friends – or if you end up married to a Korean partner!

Exhibition featuring traditional children’s hanbok 한복/ photo taken by author.

Seollal Traditions

  • Celebration hosted at the elder’s house in the hometown – with the younger generations expected to visit the hometown and pay respects to the elders during this time.
  • Performing the 세배 (sebae) bow to elders as the Seollal greeting. Note: children can expect an envelope of cash ‘sebaet don’ in return!
  • New year greeting “새해 복 많이 받으세요” (saehae bok mani badeuseyo) which means “Have lots of luck in the new year.”
  • Wearing traditional 한복 hanbok clothes.
  • Eating rice-cake soup 떡국 tteok-guk, rice cake, and fired pancakes 전.
  • Getting older after eating rice-cake soup on New Year’s Day (this tradition is officially coming to an end in 2023 with a push to stop using the “Korean age” system).
  • Traditionally, female relatives (led by the female elder or spouse of the eldest son, who hosts the celebration) were in charge of Seollal meal preparations and would spend many hours preparing the festive foods. Since this was often a very stressful task, many modern variations have evolved in recent years (read more below).
  • A food-laden table to honour the ancestors was also a traditional part of the Seollal celebration, known as 차례 (charye).
  • Playing traditional games (see examples below).
Traditional games and activities such as kite-flying Yeonnalligi 연날리기, hoop-rolling Gulleongsui 굴렁쇠, and Korean chess Janggi 장기, are examples of popular holiday activities/ photos taken by author.

Modern Variations

  • Hosting the Seollal celebration at a younger sibling’s house and/ or outside the hometown, for instance, having the parents/ elders visit children in Seoul.
  • Meal preparation by male relatives, pre-purchasing certain foods or eating out altogether are increasingly growing in popularity as a means of reducing the burden of home-cooking.
  • Celebrating Seollal outside the house, enjoying a family vacation abroad is another recent trend.

Office Etiquette

Whether you are working in East Asia or have dealing with business partners is the region, it’s important to keep a few office etiquette rules in mind. Similar to the Christmas break in many Western cultures, Lunar New Year is a time where colleagues may take extended leave to travel. In China in particular, the long public holiday means that you can expect delays in logistics/ e-commerce and a “shut-down” of office operations.

It is therefore best to avoid sending emails or texting colleagues/ business partners during this time – unless you are reaching out to share a festive greeting (see examples below)!

Festive greetings in China

Tip: you can use the below examples or add the phrase “Wish you” at the front – “祝你” (zhù nǐ) for example “祝你新年快乐”!

  • 过年好(guò nián hǎo) Happy New Year! Cantonese: 新年好 (sen-nin haow)
  • 新年快乐(xīn nián kuài lè) Happy New Year!
  • 新年快乐,万事如意 (xīn nián kuài lè, wàn shì rú yì) Happy New Year & may all go well with you.
  • 新年快乐,阖家幸福(xīn nián kuài lè, hé jiā xìng fú) Happy New Year & wish you a happy family.
  • 恭喜发财 (gōng xǐ fā cái) Wish you happiness and prosperity! (Cantonese: 恭喜發財 / “gong-hey faa-chwhy”)
  • 春节快乐(chūn jié kuài lè) Happy Spring Festival!
  • 步步高升bùbù gāoshēng On the up and up! Cantonese: 步步高陞 (boh-boh goh-sshi)
  • 兔年快乐 tù nián kuài lè Happy the Year of the Rabbit! Cantonese: tou-nin faai-lok
  • 元宵节 快乐 yuánxiāo jié kuài lè Happy Lantern Festival

Note: in China it is common to send four-letter idioms as a festive greeting. This means that there are plenty of variations to choose from – both in terms of traditional and modern slang options! Click here for more examples.

Lantern Festival 元宵节 celebration in Taiwan/ photo taken by author.

Festive greetings in Korea

  • Very formal “새해 복 많이 받으십시오” (saehae bog manh-i bad-eusibsio) or less formal “새해 복 많이 받으세요” (saehae bok mani badeuseyo)
  • Informal/ slang phrase for friends, young colleagues or fellow foreigners “해피 설날” (Happy Seollal)
  • Note: Another important cultural tip is making sure to use the term “Seollal” or “Lunar New Year” when referring to this holiday in Korea, instead of saying “Chinese New Year”.

When to send festive greetings

In Korea, the Lunar New Year is celebrated over three days, with the main celebration falling on the second day (Lunar New Year’s Day). In both China and Korea, Lunar New Year greetings are shared prior to or on New Year’s Day (Yangnyeok Seollal 양력 설날, formally known as Sinjeong 신정 in Korea), which in 2023 falls on January 22nd.

In both East Asia nations, companies give our gift coupons or gift sets for the holidays to all employees. Some workplaces might also have a festive lunch or dinner, but “Lunar New year” office parties are not part of the trend, unlike Western Christmas or New Year parties. In China, it is also common to send red envelopes (红包 hong bao) via WeChat, either in personal chats or in group chats where those lucky to click on the link get the gift!

Note: The gift and hongbao amount usually coincide with your position and relationship to the giver, meaning that there is significant nuance between gifting to elders, juniors, family members, or work colleagues. Learn more about Chinese hongbao culture, including how much to give and on which occasions, in this link.

Additionally, whether the gifts are cash or giftsets, the holiday tradition of gift-giving is an important way of solidifying business relationships as well as family ties. In Korea, you are sure to see shop shelves stacked with “gift sets” – from budget “SPAM” sets (pictured above) all the way to luxury Korean beef or ginseng products (learn more about the various types of gift sets and their role in business here).

However, with increasing scrutiny given to stamping out corruption and preventing bribes from being delivered through holiday gift-giving, there are legal considerations and many companies have strict non-gifting policies in place. Make sure to keep this in mind when deciding whether a gift or simply a festive message is the most appropriate form of relationship management!

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Kate Kalinova

Kate Kalinova is a Project Manager at the Australian Chamber of Commerce (AustCham) in Korea. She writes for Asia Options and Korea.net.

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