Over the Moon: Happy Lunar New Year
The crystal ball already dropped in New York City’s Times Square marking the start of 2024, but millions of people around the world will usher in the new year on February 10. Lunar New Year, sometimes called Chinese New Year or the Spring Festival, is celebrated across Asia and among Asian people worldwide. In Vietnam, it’s called Tet, in Korea it’s Seollal.
Lunar New Year began as a celebration of the planting and harvest cycles. Traditions vary from country to country, but festivities emphasize food, family, and good fortune. In Cantonese, the phrase “gung hay fat choy” means “wishing you great happiness and prosperity.”
“It’s our biggest celebration of the year, an opportunity for our family to get together,” says Greg Jung, vice chair of Folsom History (the city’s historical society) and a State Farm agent in Folsom. “I remember as a young kid getting together with grandparents, aunts, and uncles. All the kids got red envelopes with money in them, so it was fun.”
Unlike New Year’s Day on January 1, which is determined by the Gregorian calendar, the Lunar New Year begins with the first new moon on the lunisolar calendar. The celebration ends 15 days later on the first full moon. The start date changes each year, but always falls between January 21 and February 20.
Each year is represented by one of 12 animals (rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig); 2024 is the Year of the Dragon. In Chinese culture, the mythical dragon represents power, luck, wisdom, bravery, and strength. The dragon dance, which involves a team of street performers using poles to rhythmically move a dragon puppet, is often done at festivals.
“If you’re born in the Year of the Dragon, you’re powerful, vigorous, charming,” Jung says. “You’re a leader who encourages and inspires others.”
Before the Lunar New Year, people clean their houses to “sweep out” bad luck. No cleaning is done during the celebration, in fear that one might sweep out the good luck. Among other traditions, people decorate with red, symbolizing joy and good luck; exchange small gifts, such as fruits and plants; and do good deeds. Fireworks are set off to scare away evil spirits/bad luck while inviting in good spirits/good luck. “Don’ts” include paying bills (you’ll be in debt for the year), arguing (you’ll have strife throughout the year), and breaking dishes (bad luck).
“As I tell my staff, we follow some crazy Chinese traditions,” laughs Jung. “But the central theme is to spend time with your family and pay respects to your ancestors, and they will watch over you.”
Chinese people have a long history of contributing to this region. Many came during the Gold Rush seeking fortune and stayed to build the Transcontinental Railroad through Placer County. Known for the quality of their work, Chinese laborers also completed the levee system along the Delta, and helped build the vineyards in Napa and Sonoma. In the 1880s, Folsom had the second-largest Chinese community in the state after San Francisco, according to Folsom History.
“The Chinese found Folsom to be a refuge, a safe haven,” explains Jung. “In the 1800s, the Chinese were hated. People thought they brought illness and were taking their jobs. But in Folsom, they developed an alliance with the Black miners who protected them. The word on the street was ‘Go to Folsom, you’ll be protected.’”
Folsom History is developing a Chinese Heritage Museum that will tell the rich, complex history of Chinese immigrants in both Folsom and the state. The museum will be located in a home donated by the Chan family, whose local legacy dates back to the 1850s. And in Auburn, the historic Joss House—originally a gathering place for Chinese settlers—educates visitors about the immigrants’ experiences and contributions.
Celebrate Lunar New Year locally by gathering with family and remembering your ancestors. Food is central to the festivities, so check to see if your favorite Asian restaurant has a Lunar New Year menu. Some restaurants, including Fat’s Asia Bistro in Folsom and Roseville, offer specials. Or find recipes for fa gao (fortune cake) and other traditional New Year’s dishes to make yourself.
Immerse yourself in the culture—and the fun—by attending a festival. The Chinese New Year Culture Association (cnyca.net) is hosting its annual festival on February 24 at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento. And the Vietnamese American Community of Sacramento (vacos.org) is hosting a Tet Festival in Elk Grove from February 10-11. Both events will include traditional food, dances, games, and cultural displays.
To learn more about the contributions of Chinese immigrants to our region, visit the Joss House in Auburn (auburnjosshouse.org) or Chinese Heritage Museum in Folsom when it opens. In the meantime, the adjacent Folsom History Museum (folsomhistory.org) has a small collection of items on display.
by Jennifer MaragoniChinese New Year Culture Association photo by Shiqiao Li. Other photos courtesy of their respective companies or organizations.