Happy Lunar New Year! Happy Chinese New Year! — What’s the difference and why it matters

Every year, around February and sometimes late January, a celebration of a new year is pronounced. Not because people are late to the ball drop but rather because it is celebrating a new year of a different calendar, the lunar calendar. Yet many people say “Chinese New Year” while some say “Lunar New Year.” What’s the difference?

When I go on Facebook during this time of the year, I see people posting “Happy Chinese New Year.” However, I started seeing more and more often that someone would comment “You mean Lunar New Year.” While subtle, there is a significant difference.

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

Based on the same calendar, many cultures celebrate Lunar New Years in different ways and some have different names for it. In Vietnam, it is called Tet while in Korea it is called Seollal.

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

“Happy Holidays” Reason

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

Lunar new year is a time of the year, much like January 1 (New Year) and December 25 (winter solstice.) However, Chinese New Year is more of how the celebrations are treated, much like Christmas being celebrated on December 25. What is able to make Christmas separate from other celebrations of the winter solstice is truly the date. While Christmas is based off of the Gregorian calendar (the calendar we commonly use now) there are other cultures that celebrate the winter solstice but on a different date. A notable example would be Hanukkah being celebrated on the 25th day of the 9th month of the Hebrew Calendar.

This is a very key and, if misunderstood, reason doing so. There is no “guide to celebrate Lunar New Year” because it’s not a holiday but a time. Hence, when some explains, “this is how you celebrate Lunar New Year” and goes on to detail the Chinese traditions of celebrating the New Year, it is implying that only the Chinese traditions are the right way to celebrate Lunar New Year.

“Don’t confuse I’m from China” Reason

This one is more specific to Taiwanese. Many Taiwanese, excluding aboriginals, have a heritage that traces back to modern day China. This is irregardless of ancestors immigrating over in the 1600’s or the 1950’s. Hence, much of the celebration done by Taiwanese are of the traditional Chinese.

While those who understand the intricacies of Taiwan and China relations may understand the complexity and multiple connotation 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 use a more inclusive terminology of “Lunar New Year.” As contrast, it would be awkward to tell a Korean “Happy Chinese New Year” because they are quite obviously not Chinese.

Does Chinese always mean having a China passport?

“Chinese” is a poorly defined word

The avoidance of the word “Chinese” is understandable, mainly because it is ill-defined. Typically to describe someone who hails from the land of China, it can also be used to describe someone/something of the heritage of Chinese (Han) culture.

Culture is not defined by man-made borders of countries, but rather communities of people. People from the region of southern China have immigrated to Taiwan since before the 1600s have undoubtedly shaped Taiwan’s ethnicity and culture. Because people directly link Chinese culture to the current nation of China, often times people would 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 celebrate this holiday. 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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