Happy Lunar New Year! Happy Chinese New Year! — What’s the Difference and Why It Matters

Last edited on Feb 16, 2021 by Sarina Chow

Every year around February and sometimes late January, the celebration of a new year is pronounced. Not because people are late to the ball drop, but rather because they are celebrating the new year of a different calendar—the lunar calendar. You may hear people refer to this celebration as “Chinese New Year” or “Lunar New Year.” So what’s the difference?

When I scroll through Facebook at this time of the year, my timeline is filled with people posting “Happy Chinese New Year!” However, I have been increasingly noticing others who would comment on those posts, “You mean Lunar New Year.” While subtle, there is a significant difference between these two phrases.

Traditional Korean New Year game of Tuho which is not a game played for Chinese New Year

Many cultures follow the same lunar calendar, but celebrate Lunar New Year in different ways and some have different names for it. In Vietnam, they refer to the new year as “Tết“, while in Korea the new year is called “Seollal (설날)“.

To say that someone celebrated the Lunar New Year would be like saying they celebrated the winter solstice instead of Christmas or Hanukkah. So why do people insist on saying “Happy Lunar New Year?”

“Happy Holidays”

The main reason why someone would say “Happy Lunar New Year” is simply because not everyone celebrates Lunar New Year in the same way. Wishing someone “Happy Lunar New Year” is synonymous to saying “Happy Holidays” in December. This is a catch-all phrase and simple way to wish everyone best wishes during the holiday season.

Lunar New Year refers to a specific time of the year, much like January 1 refers to the New Year in the Gregorian calendar (the calendar most commonly used around the world today) and December 25 is reckoned as the winter solstice in the Julian calendar. However, “Chinese New Year” is a more nuanced way of referring to how Chinese celebrations are held for Lunar New Year. Similarly, Christmas generally refers to the Christians’ celebration of Jesus Christ’s birth.

Christmas can also be differentiated from other celebrations held around the winter solstice period by its singular date. While Christmas is based off of the Gregorian calendar, other cultures celebrate the winter solstice but on a different date. A notable example is Hanukkah, which is celebrated on the 25th day of the 9th month of the Hebrew Calendar.

There is no “guide to celebrate Lunar New Year” because it is not a holiday, but a time of the year. Hence, when someone explains that “this is how you celebrate Lunar New Year” and goes on to detail the Chinese customs of celebrating the New Year, it is implying that the Chinese traditions are the “correct” way to celebrate Lunar New Year.

“Don’t confuse me as being from China”

This one is more specific to Taiwanese people. Many Taiwanese people today, excluding Indigenous groups, have an ancestral heritage that traces back to those of modern day China. This is irregardless of ancestors immigrating over to Taiwan in the 1600’s or the 1950’s. Because of this shared heritage, several Lunar New Year celebrations held in Taiwan today are those passed down from traditional Chinese customs.

While those who understand the intricacies of Taiwan and China relations may understand the complexity and various connotations that the word “Chinese” holds, in the eyes of the layman, the term “Chinese New Year” may hold a simple connotation of “pertaining to the country of China.” To avoid this confusion, many Taiwanese choose to avoid the term and instead use the more inclusive terminology, “Lunar New Year”. In another context, it would be awkward to tell a Korean person “Happy Chinese New Year” because they are quite obviously not Chinese.

Does “Chinese” always mean having a passport from China?

“Chinese” is a poorly defined word

The avoidance of the word “Chinese” is understandable, mainly because it is ill-defined. The term is typically used to describe someone whose heritage extends from ancestors who lived in the geographical region known as China today, but it can also be used to describe someone or something with the heritage of Chinese (Han) culture.

Culture is not defined by man-made borders of countries, but rather by communities of people. People from the region of southern China who immigrated to Taiwan since before the 1600s have undoubtedly shaped Taiwan’s ethnicity and culture as it is today. Because most people automatically associate Chinese culture with the country, China, often times people confuse ethnicity and culture for nationality. For myself, I am ethnically and culturally “Chinese” but nationally Taiwanese. For this reason, I try to use “Chinese” to describe the China nation, people and government, while using “Han” to describe the culture and heritage.

I am ethnically and culturally “Chinese” but nationally Taiwanese.

With the growing number of Chinese tourists and the strength of their purchasing power, more and more Western brands are starting to recognize and celebrate Lunar New Year. This trend will bring “Chinese New Year” and “Lunar New Year” to a new level of visibility. With this in mind, what would you say?

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