Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Same Moon, Different Cultures: How Lunar New Year Is Celebrated

Story by Billy Tran | Staff Editor 

Living in Singapore, we are no strangers to Chinese New Year. But if you look around, you might see the term “Lunar New Year” and wonder: Are they the same thing? 

Lunar New Year refers to the start of the first full moon based on the lunisolar calendar, whose date includes the Moon phase and the time of the solar year. While we commonly associate the holiday with Chinese people (which is why the abbreviation “CNY” rolls off the tongue so easily), there are actually many other Asian communities that celebrate the same event.

In Mongolia, South Korea, Vietnam, and elsewhere, Lunar New Year is a national holiday revered by many. Although there are similar rituals across cultures, such as money-giving and family-visiting, each culture has its own food, attire, games, and traditions that make it unique in its own way.

Mongolia: white moon, blue dresses, and zodiac-specific ceremonies

In Mongolia, Sundarimaa Erdembileg ‘24 celebrates Lunar New Year, or Tsagaan Sar, which translates to “White Moon.” “Also, the day before is called bituun where we’re supposed to eat until we’re full, like the moon,” Erdembileg shares.

On the eve of the New Year, Erdembileg’s family celebrates by gathering and making dumplings together. They also prepare a stack of Mongolian bread called heviin boov, used as a decorative centrepiece for the table. “Besides that, we also have dried curd, potato salad, dairy products, and a lot—and I mean a lot—of meat,” she says.

Erdembileg (right) and her sister. Image credit: Sundarimaa Erdembileg

When visiting her family, she wears a traditional Mongolian deel, a long dress with long sleeves, a collar, and a belt. She also greets her grandparents with a traditional cloth called a khatag. Interestingly, while many may associate Lunar New Year with the color red, the outfit and cloth are typically blue. 

“Mongolians really like the sky and how blue it is. It sounds weird but it’s a defining trait,” she says. “Mongolians associate blue with a lot of good things.”

On the morning of the New Year, Erdembileg has to follow a list of specific instructions that depend on her zodiac sign. “It’s to bless myself, and my mom would usually tell me what to do. I was born in the year of the snake, and one year I had to carve out a snake made of flour dough,” she says.

Even though she is not home for the holidays, she still plans on keeping up with the festivities by eating dumplings, searching for Mongolian food in Singapore, and spending time with her Mongolian friends.

South Korea: ancestral ceremony, hanboks, and board games

For Audrey Jeong ‘24, Korean New Year, or Seollal, is the time to celebrate with family and honor her ancestors. On the morning of the New Year, her family prepares food and alcohol as offerings in preparation for the ancestral ceremony. “The ceremony consists of bowing and placing spoons or chopsticks on different dishes, pouring alcohol and lighting incense,” Jeong shares.

Tteokguk. Image credit: Audrey Jeong

Afterward, there is a lot of eating. “The main thing we like to have is this sticky rice cake and dumpling soup called tteokguk,” she shares. Her table is filled with vegetable side dishes called namool and Korean traditional snacks like rice crackers.

Women in the traditional hanbok. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Jeong also shares that when she conducts her memorial service to the ancestors, she wears traditional clothes. She describes the traditional hanbok as colorful, with women wearing a big skirt with a jacket and men wearing big pants with a longer jacket. “The kids also have this little rainbow sleeve. It’s very cute,” she adds.

When it’s game time, she plays a traditional board game called yut nori. She explains, “the board looks like an ‘X’ with a box around it. Basically, you take four sticks of wood, with symbols on one side and flat on the other, and you flip them. The number of steps you can take depends on the combination of sticks that land flat side up. The quickest one to finish the course wins.”

While this year is not the first time Jeong has celebrated Lunar New Year away from home, it is the first time she has been away from her family. However, she is still going to take part in the ancestral ceremony with them. “The ceremony is important for my family. I’m just going to Zoom them,” she says.

Vietnam: comedy show, festive decorations, and food

Sharing as a Vietnamese person myself, Lunar New Year is called Tet and the holiday can last for up to two to three weeks. It is a national affair with decorations, festivities, and wonderful, fattening food.

On the eve of Lunar New Year, there is an annual comedy show called “Gap Nhau Cuoi Nam” (Year-End Gathering) that everyone tunes in to watch on television. Famous comedians and actors dress up as gods in heaven, providing a recap of and social commentary on the past year with music and other shenanigans.

Ancestral ceremony on the balcony, with offerings including fruits, sticky rice and a whole chicken. Image credit: Billy Tran

Similar to Jeong, my family also lays out a table with food and offerings to hold an ancestral ceremony at midnight of the New Year. It is also believed that the first person to enter the house in the New Year will determine the house’s fortunes for the rest of the year. I recall one particular year when those with a dragon zodiac were deemed auspicious, and I was so excited to enter the house first. I think I blessed three houses that year.

During the festive season, people also love to decorate their houses with pink peach blossoms, yellow apricot blossoms, and a kumquat tree. My mom would spend ages picking out the perfect peach blossom branches from the roadside sellers, a line of motorbikes waiting behind us.

Banh trung. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Food is always a favorite, the most common being banh trung, a tightly-packed sticky rice cake filled with beans and meat. Sometimes, my mom would fry it for me to make it nice and crispy with the most satisfying crunch sound. Personally, it’s my favorite way of enjoying the dish—unhealthy, yes, but the taste is worth it. To round off the menu, there are also Vietnamese sausages, red sticky rice, plenty of dried fruits, and coconut candy.

Lunar New Year vs Chinese New Year

Erdembileg shares, “I don’t get too offended when people call it Chinese New Year. A part of me understands, because it’s what the world knows it as. But still, a part of me feels bad about it.” She also adds that people still ask her whether Mongolia is a part of China. “We’re a separate country with separate celebrations and a separate language,” she says.

Similarly, Jeong thinks that widely calling it Chinese New Year generalizes East Asia. She also shares that “in the beginning, I didn’t know Chinese New Year and Lunar New Year were the same thing, I thought the Chinese calendar was different. I don’t think it’s very accurate. It gives the wrong impression.”

I empathize with both Erdembileg and Jeong. When people ask whether I celebrate Chinese New Year, I know that the answer is technically yes but at the same time, it’s also not. Learning about all the different ways people celebrate Lunar New Year has also made me appreciate all the nuances and unique quirks of Tet so much more.

When I look at that full moon, I know that there are millions of people across the continent looking at it too, each celebrating it in their own unique way. To me, that makes Lunar New Year even more beautiful.

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