The Chinese New Year brings to mind visions of dancing dragons and lanterns lit in red, and whether you celebrate the traditional way or observe from afar, the good tidings of the Lunar New Year are a familiar feeling.
However, while the Chinese New Year is a Lunar New Year, the history of the Lunar New Year and its various celebrations are much more complicated. All Chinese New Year celebrations are celebrations of the Lunar New Year, but certainly not all Lunar New Year celebrations are traditionally Chinese.
Learn a little more about this widely celebrated event with these five fast facts.
1. The beginning of the lunar new year changes each year.
The lunar calendar is based on the cycles of the moon, so the date of the Chinese New Year and its festival changes every year. Technically, it falls during the second new moon after the winter solstice. Though it falls on February 1 this year, the first day of the Lunar New Year can be anywhere from January 21 to February 19. China was relatively late to adopting the Gregorian calendar, officially switching in 1912 (though not effectively using it until 1929), but the lunar calendar is more important on a spiritual and cultural level. All of the traditional holidays from the lunar calendar, like the winter solstice, are still celebrated in China, and many people in China still calculate their age and birthday by the lunar calendar.
2. The lunar calendar is not quite the same as the lunisolar calendar.
The "Lunar New Year" can actually indicate a couple of different things. The broadest meaning is based solely on the lunar calendar, which is calculated by monthly cycles based on the moon's phases (the Islamic calendar, for example, is a lunar calendar). Some Lunar New Years, though, are based on lunisolar calendars, which include both the moon's phase and the time in the solar year. The Gregorian calendar—and the Chinese, Hebrew, and ancient Babylonian calendars, too—are lunisolar calendars. This explains why holidays like Easter, Ramadan, or Rosh Hashanah in the Gregorian calendar—and Chinese New Year—fall on different dates every year.
3. Lunar New Year festivities date back to 14th century BCE.
Certainly the most recognized celebration of the Lunar New Year comes from China. Though it's hard to pinpoint its origin, the celebration of the new year in China started somewhere around the 14th century BCE, when a solar-based calendar created around the solstices was introduced. With it, the Chinese began using lunar and solar calendars concurrently. The agrarian society, though, knew that each year's harvest went through the same cycles every year, and the new harvest year (hence, why it's also called the Spring Festival) began being celebrated during the Shang dynasty. It wasn't until much later, during the 2nd century BCE, that Emperor Wudi of the Han dynasty fixed the celebration to be on the first day on the first month of the lunar calendar.
4. It's not just a Chinese festival.
The Chinese New Year is not the only celebration based on the Lunar New Year. There are Lunar New Year celebrations in Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Singapore, and more. In fact, Sydney, Australia renamed their festivities from "Chinese" to "Lunar New Year Festival" in 2019 in order to be more inclusive of the numerous Asian cultures that celebrate with a lunar calendar.
5. Lunar New Year is an official holiday in California.
Not only is California the most populous state in the union, according to recent census data, it also has the largest Asian population of any state, at roughly 6 million. Because Asian culture is so popular in California, in 2018, former Governor Jerry Brown signed a law recognizing the Lunar New Year as an official state holiday.
"Millions of people in California celebrate the traditions of the Lunar New Year that are transmitted from one generation to the next," said Dr. Richard Pan, a state senator and co-author of the bill. "This bill will help recognize the rich history of one of the most celebrated events worldwide, and demonstrates to the API [Asian and Pacific Islander] community in our state that we are all part of the California family."
A version of this article was originally published in 2019; it has been updated for 2022.