How to Participate in the Lunar New Year This Year

The Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Freer and Sackler Galleries host virtual events

Lunar New Year Festivities
A picture of Lunar New Year festivities in a previous year. Courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Photo by Jeremy Norwood, Norwood Photography, 2020

Every year, millions of people usually travel to see their families ahead of the Lunar New Year, one of the most important holidays celebrated in Vietnam, South Korea, China, other Asian countries and the diaspora.

But this year, the Covid-19 pandemic has made travel difficult: The Chinese government has urged families to limit “nonessential” trips to prevent the spread of Covid-19. Similarly, in the United States, government officials continue to ask people to practice social distancing and to restrict travel.

As a result, many families are homebound for this year’s Lunar New Year festivities, so the Smithsonian American Art Museum is partnering with the Freer and Sackler Galleries to host a series of virtual events to kick off the new year.

Here’s more information on the Lunar New Year and how you can celebrate at home in 2021.

What is the Lunar New Year?

The Lunar New Year—which is also called Spring Festival—marks the first full moon of the lunar calendar and generally takes place between January 21 and February 20. The dates of the New Year change every year on the Gregorian calendar, the solar dating system used in most of the world. However, the Lunar New Year is based on a lunisolar calendar that matches the cycles of the moon.

Though it takes 365 days for the Earth to orbit the sun, the moon’s 12 full cycles take about 354 days to complete. Many ancient calendars such as the Chinese, Hindu and Jewish ones are based on these moon cycles. However, lunar calendars don’t always correspond with the seasons so to remedy that an extra month is sometimes added to a lunar calendar to align it with a solar calendar. This means that Lunar New Year festivities fall on a different day each year.

In a lunisolar calendar, there are certain things that are also pegged to the movement of the sun, says Jan Stuart, a curator at the Freer and Sackler Galleries, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art. “There are mechanisms keeping these calendars in sync, but it’s the lunar calendar that’s the primary one. The Chinese calendar has been micro calibrated to be best for agricultural dates.”

Traditional China was largely an agrarian society. The Lunar New Year took place after farmers harvested crops and before they had to plant new ones, so the holiday represents a time of rest. In the People’s Republic of China, the public holiday is one week long, and this year it will take place between February 11 and 17.

“It’s a 15-day holiday. You start by doing certain ritual acts, such as a symbolic sweeping cleaning of the home in order to drive out any misfortune, bad luck or any bad influences,” says Stuart.

She adds that the Lunar New Year is based on, “this idea of starting fresh and anew.”

Lunar New Year Traditions

Many traditions are associated with the new year, including a large reunion dinner with one’s family. The meal allows for relatives who haven’t seen each other in months to dine together and celebrate the arrival of spring. One food that people eat during the Lunar New Year is tangyuan (glutinous rice ball), which is a sweet rice patty that people typically eat during the lantern festival, the culminating celebration of the Lunar New Year.

“It’s a family-oriented holiday,” says YinYing Chen, a program staffer at the Freer and Sackler Galleries who grew up in Taiwan. “You spend time with your family. It’s kicked off with a reunion dinner with your family on New Year’s Eve and concludes with the lantern festival.”

During Lunar New Year revelries, families make offerings to their ancestors, which are usually accompanied by an ancestral shrine.

“You prepare to honor your family ancestors, and people do this today as well,” says Stuart. “The ways of honoring the ancestors may be slightly different throughout China, but the basic idea is that you’re going to hang up paintings of your ancestors or display photographs of them and make offerings of incense and food.”

Chen agrees, “It’s important for you to pay tribute to your ancestors. To show your appreciation for a safe passage for the previous year.”

Another Lunar New Year custom involves exchanging red envelopes. In this tradition, older relatives give young children bright red envelopes filled with cash, which originates from a custom where people swapped coins to ward off evil spirits.

Stuart speculates that older relatives may give these envelopes to each other digitally during the pandemic.

Some people also like to decorate their homes in bright hues, including “lots of reds and golds, which are auspicious colors,” says Stuart.

The lantern festival closes the new year, and people across the world normally celebrate this event with a large celebration.

“Kids carry the lanterns around the neighborhood,” says Chen. “Usually there is a lantern festival where people carry lanterns of different sizes. They are made out of papers, bamboo structures and glue.”

What’s Changed During the Pandemic

The pandemic has drastically altered our day-to-day lives, and it will also affect Lunar New Year festivities in 2021. To maintain social distancing protocols, many families are celebrating the holiday remotely or are gathering in smaller groups.

“I will call my family during the holiday just to say hi,” says Chen. “I plan to call my dad and my mom. You usually go to your grandparents if they are still around, but I won’t be able to do that. I may just have a small gathering with a few close friends.”

Others may find unique ways to keep family traditions alive via Zoom or other video calling platforms.

“I think that people will definitely be Zooming a lot,” says Stuart. “I think it is important for people to see each other during this time of year and symbolically toast each other. I don’t know what people will do, but usually there is a family altar where family photos are. Maybe they will send prints of photos and each home will have its own little altar.”

Enjoy virtual Lunar New festivities this year with this list of Lunar New Year events.

Luck and Fortune: Lunar New Year Food Traditions

Feb. 10, from 6 to 7 p.m.

Chinese Lunar New Year is a 15-day celebration of the arrival of spring, filled with feasts at the homes of relatives and friends. Preparing symbolic dishes that are eaten to bring good luck and fortune in the coming year is one of the most important parts of the holiday. In this talk, join Jan Stuart, the Melvin R. Seiden curator of Chinese art at the Freer and Sackler Galleries, to explore works from the museum’s collections that can tell us about Lunar New Year food traditions. Restaurant owner and culinary entrepreneur Lydia Chang, daughter of Peter Chang (the former Chinese embassy chef whose family runs Peter Chang, Q by Peter Chang, and Mama Chang) joins to share stories about the celebratory dishes her family has cooked for generations and the memories that preparing these dishes evokes. Register for it here.

Meditation and Mindfulness
Feb. 12, from noon to 12:30 p.m.

Meditation helps us build a relationship to a place of inner quietude. To contribute to a sense of calm in this uncertain time, the Freer and Sackler Galleries are offering free 30-minute online meditations three times each week led by Washington, D.C.-based meditation teachers. The session is appropriate for all levels and includes a variety of mindfulness practices. It includes inspiration from art in the museum collection. Registration is required.

Lunar New Year Virtual Celebration

Feb. 13 at 10 a.m.

Ring in the Year of the Ox! Celebrate the Lunar New Year online with the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Chinese Cultural Institute, and the Embassy of the People's Republic of China in the United States of America. Enjoy streamed video performances and demonstrations of traditional Chinese crafts and Lunar New Year traditions. Visit SAAM Family Zone online for crafts, coloring pages, videos and other activities. Presented by the Smithsonian American Art Museum, in partnership with the Embassy of the People's Republic of China in the United States of America. This event is sold out.

Shanghai Quartet

Feb. 13 at 7:30 p.m.

During Chinese New Year, enjoy the enchanting “Eight Folk Songs” by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Zhou Long. His high-spirited arrangements of traditional music from across China will be performed by the eminent Shanghai Quartet, a cherished staple in the Freer and Sackler’s concert series for 27 years. The quartet will record this concert specially for the museum at the Tianjin Juilliard School in China’s fourth-largest city, where the musicians in the quartet became resident faculty members in fall 2020. The quartet just welcomed its new second violinist, Angelo Xiang Yu, winner of both a 2019 Avery Fisher Career Grant and a 2019 Lincoln Center Emerging Artist Award. He also earned first prize in the 2010 Yehudi Menuhin Competition. Along with Zhou Long’s “Eight Folk Songs,” the Shanghai Quartet performs another folk music-inflected work, the autobiographical Quartet no. 1 (“From My Life”) by Czech composer Bedřich Smetana, as well as Joseph Haydn’s lively Quartet in G Minor, op. 74, no. 3 (“Rider”). Registration is required.

Look & Listen: Korean Art and the Music of Family Tradition

Feb. 18 at 6 p.m.

Explore Korea’s enduring tradition of family devotion through the performance of pansori, Korea’s unique form of musical storytelling, coupled with a close examination of related artworks, such as a colorful folding screen, ornamented ceramics, and an embroidered wedding gown. Vocalist and scholar Chan E. Park performs key scenes from the famous pansori play Song of Sim Cheong, in which a devoted daughter sacrifices herself in an effort to restore her blind father’s eyesight. Saved by the Dragon King and nurtured in his underwater Crystal Palace, she is reborn as a lotus flower, marries the emperor, and is reunited with her father. Vocalist Chan E. Park teaches Korean language, literature, and performing arts at Ohio State University. She has given numerous lectures, workshops, and pansori performances around the world. She is the author of Voices from the Straw Mat: Toward an Ethnography of Korean Story Singing. Sooa Im McCormick, curator of Korean art at the Cleveland Museum of Art, and Sunwoo Hwang, Korean program associate at the Freer and Sackler Galleries, will guide viewers through close-up looks at Korean artworks that amplify the traditional themes of Song of Sim Cheong. This program is presented in cooperation with the Cleveland Museum of Art. You can register here.

Meditation and Mindfulness

Feb. 19, from noon to 12:30 p.m.

Meditation helps us build a relationship to a place of inner quietude. To contribute to a sense of calm in this uncertain time, the Freer and Sackler Galleries are offering free 30-minute online meditations three times each week led by DC-based meditation teachers. The session is appropriate for all levels and includes a variety of mindfulness practices. It includes inspiration from art in the museum collection. Registration is required.

Art & Me: The Lunar New Year

Feb. 20, from 10 to 10:45 a.m.

Celebrate the Year of the Ox with the art doctors in this virtual workshop! From toys to tiles, see how artists have been inspired by oxen for generations and how Smithsonian conservators preserve these artworks. Then create your own ox masterpiece to ring in the new year.

This hands-on, art-making preservation workshop is designed for children ages three to eight and their caretakers. The program is part of a yearlong series cohosted by the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. Registration is required. One registration per family. A Zoom link and a list of suggested materials will be sent to registered participants 24–48 hours in advance of the workshop.

Lighting Up Lanterns for Tết

Feb. 21, from 10 to 11 a.m.

Come celebrate Tết, Vietnamese Lunar New Year, in this family workshop. Honoring the power of hope in dark times, this holiday reminds us that the light of a lantern can offer cheer and the promise of better times ahead. This program, led by artist Khánh H. Lê, will include an interactive lantern-making workshop and information about how the holiday is celebrated in Vietnam. It is designed for children six and older with adult companions. Registration is required. One registration per family. A Zoom link and a list of suggested materials will be sent to registered participants 24–48 hours in advance of the workshop.

Meditation and Mindfulness

Feb. 26, from noon to 12:30 p.m.

Meditation helps us build a relationship to a place of inner quietude. To contribute to a sense of calm in this uncertain time, we are offering free 30-minute online meditations three times each week led by DC-based meditation teachers. The session is appropriate for all levels and includes a variety of mindfulness practices. It includes inspiration from art in the museum collection. Registration is required.