Lunar New Year is known as the largest human migration in the world. With numerous East and Southeast Asian countries observing the holiday, planes fill with families eager to gather at home for festivities and tradition. While Lunar New Year is celebrated across plenty of countries from China to Vietnam and everywhere in between, every country has their own traditions and ways of reigning in the new year.
For me, the holiday became a huge part of my life when I met my husband. My familiarity with Lunar New Year is largely from the Taiwanese perspective so, as such, I will be speaking on this topic based on Taiwanese traditions.
Trying to write a single article about Lunar New Year is a bit like writing about Christmas traditions in the West: it’s a massive topic with endless possibilities. So, I will break this down year to year, starting with a guide to giving gifts.
What is Lunar New Year?
Lunar New Year is based off of the Chinese lunar-solar calendar and is widely celebrated by cultures that have had large influence from China. The term “Chinese New Year,” while widely used in Western media, is hotly debated and commonly seen as preferential since it excludes countries like Korea, Vietnam, Japan, and so on who celebrate but are not ethnically Chinese.
This year (2023) falls on January 22. The holiday lasts for 15 days in total.
The year of the Rabbit
If you don’t know about the Chinese Zodiac, you may not realize that the order of the animals corresponds to a story. So why is the rabbit fourth in line?
The Jade Emperor held a sort of race to determine the order of the Zodiac – He threw a party, and the animals would be chosen by the order at which they arrived.
The story plays out much like the Western Tortoise and the Hare story – the rabbit was known to be arrogant. Aware that he had the speed to win, the rabbit became complacent. He was so confident that his speed would win him the race, he decided to take a nap off the trail. He awoke and continued, but by the time he arrived there were three animals that had beaten him. Much to his dismay, one of them was the Ox, his neighbor whom he despised and criticized for his slowness.
Many countries do not celebrate Christmas. For many in Asia, Lunar New Year is the best time to give gifts. Gift giving culture is a little bit different though: there are rules for what to give.
For example, food is a popular gift. Things like gift fruits or sweets are commonly bought and sold at this time and given out to friends and family. There is, however, one fruit to avoid: pears. Let’s get into why.
The word for “pear” is quite similar to the word for “parting” or “leaving,” and they are associated with funerals. Giving pears is seen as saying goodbye.
Like knives or scissors. Giving sharp objects as gifts is seen as a way to “cut” or sever a relationship.
Like Clocks or Watches. Any reminder of time as a gift is seen as rude. It is a reminder that time is short, and especially for elders, is a reminder that time is running out. The word for clock is also similar to the word for attending a funeral, which only drives home the death narrative further.
Avoid gifting shoes as we walk on them every day and they are worn down. It gives the message of walking away, and the word is similar to bad luck. You don’t want to wish anyone bad luck in the new year.
White or black gifts
Both colors are associated with funerals and giving gifts that are white or black imply death. So that beautiful bouquet of white chrysanthemums may look nice, but it’s a terrible idea for a gift.
They are seen as a gift for parting.
Gifting in Fours or Odd Numbers
One of the better-known superstitions from Chinese culture is that the number four is seen as incredibly unlucky. The word sounds very similar to death, and so four is avoided at all costs. Much like the United States commonly removes the 13th floor from elevators, many buildings in Taiwan and China skip the fourth floor. You should also avoid giving odd numbers as they are seen as unlucky. Don’t give gifts in fours or odds.
We have gone through the gifts to avoid. So, what can you give? There are plenty of great gifts to give to bring luck and prosperity.
Especially for children, red envelopes are commonly given out with money inside. Children looks forward to this and there’s even a fun little song children sing to ask for theirs. Give money gifts in numerals of eight for extra luck, as eight is associated with wealth. Avoid giving money in odd numbers, which includes giving gifts in numbers like 1,000 or 3,000 as these are reserved for funerals. Red envelopes are also the wedding gift of choice as well, as they bring the couple financial luck. Use new, crisp bills.
Especially citrus fruits like oranges, kumquats, tangerines, and pomelos are fantastic gift ideas. These fruits are symbols of luck and happiness, and their golden color is a symbol of wealth and prosperity. Another great fruit to give is persimmons, which are thought to make your wishes come to fruition.
If you recently went on a trip, bringing back a food item for your friends, family, and neighbors is common practice anyways. But if you are closing in on the New Year holiday, spend a bit extra to get that fancy gift box and bring it home for someone.
Tea is always a welcome gift, as are tea sets. Tea is an important part of Taiwanese culture so receiving a nice tea gift is a celebration of the culture.
With a rich drinking culture, alcohol is also a great gift for alcohol enthusiasts. Drinks that are local specialties of a location you’ve recently visited are even better.
Jewelry is a great gift for loved ones but be careful; it is often seen as a romantic gift, so make sure you are only giving these types of gifts to your significant other.
Make it Personal
As much as traditions are important to follow, giving a gift that caters to the individual is always appreciated. Find something your friend or family member will love, and if you are unsure if it may be superstitions do a bit of research first. Showing people you pay attention to their interests and care enough to think of what they love gives a personal touch.
When giving and receiving gifts, there are a few rules to follow. Make sure you are giving or receiving your gifts with these things in mind.
Use Two Hands
When presenting a gift to someone, always use two hands. You will also see this in Taiwanese culture when handing out business cards: giving an item with two hands is seen as respectful and symbolizes that you are handing over a part of yourself. In turn, you should also receive a gift with two hands, showing respect towards this offer.
Don’t Open Gifts in Front of the Gifter
Nobody likes to know you don’t like a gift. Beyond that, opening a gift as soon as it is received is seen as holding the value of the gift higher than their visit. The proper etiquette is to thank the gift giver and open the gift later when they aren’t around. You can then write them a thank you note or thank them in person later.
Red is Best
Colors like red, gold, and yellow are the best colors to use when gifting for Lunar New Year. But Red is generally the best color as it brings luck for the new year. There is one exception to this however: do not gift a red pen. Pens are acceptable gifts, but red when writing is a symbol of blood. Gifting a red pen is wishing death upon someone and writing in red pens is reserved specifically for funerals.