Despite usually being associated with China and the Chinese diaspora, the Lunar New Year is also celebrated by other countries in East Asia. There are very similar holidays called Tet (in Vietnam) and Seollal (in South Korea). The date changes from year to year because it's based on a lunar calendar, but it usually falls somewhere between mid-January and mid-to-late February.
Lunar New Year is THE holiday in the People’s Republic of China when virtually everyone returns to their hometown to visit family. The festivities are dominated by traditions such as a New Year feast with special foods, fireworks, giving “lucky money” to young people, making offerings to ancestors and decorating and dressing in red (the color of the holiday).
Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean communities in the U.S. also mark this holiday (as do people of other ethnic backgrounds who recognize the tradition). New Year parties range from modest get-togethers in community centers to massive events that draw hundreds of thousands of spectators.
Here are several places in North America to celebrate Lunar New Year.
Seattle’s Lunar New Year festivities are centered around the International District. Events in this neighborhood usually take place on the weekend closest to the actual holiday. Attendees will see lion dances, parades, kung fu performances and traditions associated with Chinese culture and Chinese New Year. Other Asia Pacific cultures also have their time on stage. The performances include Korean traditional dancing and displays from Japan, Thailand and Hawaii (three places that do not necessarily celebrate the Lunar New Year on a large scale).
An indoor celebration (most in the International District are outdoors) takes place in Bellevue, which also has a large Asian-American population. The Asian Pacific Cultural Center has events in Tacoma, and Seattle’s Vietnamese community hosts a weekend-long Tet festival as well.
New York City
New York City, which has one of the largest populations of ethnic Chinese people outside of Asia, is a great place to experience the Lunar New Year. The “main” Chinatown, in Manhattan, features parades and other celebrations, some of which spill out into other parts of the borough. This district’s restaurants are all crowded with diners seeking special holiday dishes. New Year-related performances at the Met, Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center and the Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts give Big Apple celebrations a dimension beyond parades, fireworks and food.
Depending on what you count, there are around 10 different “Chinatowns” in the New York City metro area. Visitors will find parades, performances and food in most of these areas but, because the populations of the different neighborhoods have distinct cultural and linguistic makeups, some of the festival characteristics are unique to the particular district. The Chinatown in Flushing, Queens, has its own parade, and you can also get into the festive Lunar New Year spirit in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.
Boston is another East Coast metropolis with a large Chinatown. One of the most densely populated districts in the city, the neighborhood has become a center for East and Southeast Asian culture in the Northeast. During the Lunar New Year, Vietnamese and Chinese restaurants serve special dishes, and there is a large parade with floats, dancers and fireworks. A Chinatown business organization puts on a Cultural Village event on the same day as the parade.
The Museum of Fine Arts gets in on the festivities with performances and exhibits about Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese cultures. One of the most popular events is the Lunar New Year Market, a common pre-New Year phenomenon in Asia that is usually overlooked by Chinatown visitors in the U.S. The Boston version, in Quincy, features food and New Year-themed souvenirs.
San Francisco Bay area
San Francisco’s Lunar New Year celebrations are among the longest running in North America. They date to the 1860s, during the “Gold Rush” era. Today, numerous events take place around the Bay Area, but the headliner is the massive Chinese New Year Parade that draws as many as 1 million spectators. These people come to see ornate floats, marching bands, beauty queens, a 200-foot-long dragon puppet and a pyrotechnics finale that uses 600,000 fireworks. During the festivities, the San Francisco Symphony holds a special concert, the Chinese Historical Society of America hosts events, and there is a street fair, a food festival and a fun run.
The holiday happenings spill over to other Bay Area locations. The Oakland Museum of California, for example, has a Pan-Asian celebration with performances, foods and cultural displays from the countries and regions that celebrate Lunar New Year. San Jose, meanwhile, hosts one of the larger Vietnamese Tet events in the Bay Area. Smaller cities and towns throughout the region have their own parades and cultural celebrations.
Despite frigid temps in January and February, Chicago celebrates the Lunar New Year in a big way. There are two parades, usually held on different days of the same weekend. One is in the city’s traditional Chinatown on the South Side, and the other takes place on Argyle Street, an area on the North Side with many Southeast Asian businesses. Asian culture in on full display during these parades, but other Chicago communities also take part. Don’t be surprised to see bagpipe groups or high school marching bands alongside the floats and dragon dancers.
The Windy City’s museums, zoos and indoor conservatories get in on the celebrations, and Navy Pier hosts festivities as well. The Chicago Institute of Art has a “lantern festival” that is quite popular due to its attractive displays and hands-on lantern-making opportunities. Some of the city’s hotels and retail outlets get into the Lunar New Year spirit with their own themed events,
No parkas or mittens are necessary during Honolulu’s Lunar New Year festivities. Most of the celebrations take place in the city’s historic Chinatown and are free, family-oriented and open to the public. The main events are in or around the Chinatown Cultural Plaza and along the main streets in the district. The party starts on the Friday evening nearest to the Lunar New Year and runs through the entire day and evening on Saturday.
Elsewhere in the state, resorts and hotels host their own, more modest, celebrations with food and performances. Maui’s Wo Hing Museum has a more culturally oriented party with a small parade that runs down the main street in Lahaina.
Orange County and suburban Los Angeles
Some Lunar New Year celebrations are not located in urban enclaves. Orange County in southern California is the perfect example. The city of Westminster has a large Vietnamese population and a district known as Little Saigon, while nearby Irvine has a growing suburban Chinatown. One of the largest Tet festivals outside of Vietnam takes place in the county (currently in Costa Mesa). This weekend-long event, hosted by the Union of Vietnamese Student Associations, is accessible for non-Vietnamese visitors and features booths with food, crafts and exhibits as well as pageants, performances and fireworks.
Elsewhere in the county, Disneyland, in the northern OC city of Anaheim, marks the New Year with food and special performances, while Irvine’s children’s museum, Pretend City, has special exhibits and experiences. Meanwhile, the San Gabriel Valley, to the east of Los Angeles, has at least a dozen suburban Chinatowns and Koreatowns, which have temples, businesses and Lunar New Year-related festivals (including Monterey Park’s New Year flower fair).
The Lunar New Year parade passes through D.C.’s historic Chinatown. (Photo: Ted Eytan/flickr)
Washington D.C. has a historic Chinatown. There is a parade here with floats, firecrackers, dancers and music. However, the main reason to attend festivities in the nation’s capital is the huge array of highly accessible events and performances. The Smithsonian American Art Museum hosts hands-on arts and crafts events that also feature performers from China. The Kennedy Center stages themed performances, including folk music and visiting symphonies from China.
Festivals related to the New Year will also take place in suburban D.C. Two of the most notable are in Falls Church, Virginia, and Rockville, Maryland. Both family-oriented celebrations have performances, parades and crafts as well as traditional foods.
Lunar New Year is a huge event for the U.S.'s northern neighbor. Vancouver is one of the best places for celebrating the Lunar New Year. Some 30 percent of this city’s population traces its roots to East and Southeast Asia, and 20 percent have ancestors from China. The traditions of Lunar New Year remain strong here. There is a parade and special wares for sale at Chinatown shopping malls like the International Center.
The city also boasts a lantern festival at Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, folk music performances and dances throughout the city, including a traditional lion dance at Vancouver’s public library.
New Orleans was a popular destination for refugees from southern Vietnam in the mid 1970s. After the fall of Saigon, some chose to settle along the Gulf Coast because it offered similar landscapes and livelihoods to their homeland. Today, New Orleans hosts Tet celebrations that are perhaps modest compared to other cities, but accessible and, to the delight of foodies, decidedly cuisine-focused.
The most authentic celebrations take place around Queen Mary of Vietnam Church in an area known as Village de l’Est. The Chinese community in the Crescent City also celebrates the Lunar New Year. The dates of Lunar New Year vary from year to year, but festivities often fall within a week or two of the biggest festival on the New Orleans calendar: Mardi Gras. If they're lucky, visitors can get two-for-one when visiting Louisiana’s largest city.