Lunar New Year is the single most important holiday of the year in many East Asian cultures. This year it falls officially on February 10, but the holiday really translates to a week or two of celebrations for many Queens residents of Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Tibetan and Mongolian heritage.
The New Year is a time of getting together with family, paying respects to ancestors, enjoying great food, conjuring good luck, and celebrating the beginning of spring. Traditionally, the Lunar New Year is also like a communal birthday, with everyone turning a year older at the same time.
Here we’ve laid out some of the cultural traditions and special foods of each version of the holiday – and, of course, where you can celebrate in Queens.
Chinese New Year
Chinese New Year is the most well known of the Lunar New Year celebrations. For most New Yorkers, it probably conjures up images of parades, lion dances, firecrackers, and zodiac animals. This month marks the beginning of the year of the snake, so get ready to see lots of slithering decorations along with the usual ostentatious lions and dragons at the Lunar New Year parade in Flushing on February 16.
Other traditions you might not be as familiar with: Many celebrants hang red signs with the Chinese character for “good fortune” (fu or fook). Usually they are hung upside down because the phrase “fu is upside down” sounds the same as “fu has arrived” – this type of wordplay is a big part of Chinese culture and this particular pun is widespread around the New Year. Another custom is the gifting of small red envelopes filled with money. Older and married folks hand them out to children and young single people for the New Year and other important days.
In terms of food – we know that’s what you really wanted to know! – typical Chinese New Year dishes include dumplings (because they resemble the shape of ancient Chinese money), long noodles (to symbolize a long life), whole chicken, fish, and Mandarin oranges. Here are our picks for the best dumplings in Queens. There are so many more traditional foods, but Chinese New Year is celebrated over such a huge geographical area that the special fruits, sweets, and other treats really vary by region. Our suggestion: just wander from bakery to store to restaurant in Flushing, and order whatever they suggest for the holiday.
Besides eating awesome food and watching the parade, you can celebrate Chinese arts and culture at the Queens Theatre, meet some snakes at the Queens Zoo, make paper lanterns at the Queens Botanical Garden, or watch Chinese, Taiwanese and other dances at Flushing Town Hall.
Korean New Year (Seollal)
Seollal is a three-day holiday, typically celebrated on New Year’s Eve, New Year’s day, and the day after. Korean families come together to pay respects to their ancestors, performing a rite in which they greet ancestral spirits, offer food and beverages to ancestors in a certain order, and then bow to the spirits, saying goodbye until next year.
The most important food to be served on Seollal is tteokguk, a soup with sliced glutinous rice cakes. The soup is thought to bring good luck for the year ahead, and eating it is a symbol for turning another year older. Other activities include dressing up in colorful hanbok (traditional Korean clothes) and playing traditional games such as yutnori, a board game that involves four wooden sticks.
Chinese New Year may get most of the attention, but Korean New Year celebrations also have a considerable (and growing) presence in Queens. Plenty of Korean groups will march in the Lunar New Year parade in Flushing on February 16. Get a Korean cooking lesson and experience Korean opera and dance at the Queens Library in Flushing; Korean dancers will also be featured at the dance sampler event at Flushing Town Hall.
Vietnamese New Year (Tet)
Image source: Wikimedia Commons
For the Vietnamese, the Lunar New Year is an all-out festival marking the beginning of spring. Families bring cheer into their homes by decorating with flowers, fruits and plants, especially kumquat trees and peach flower branches. New Year trees – which can be flowering or fruit trees, branches, or bamboo stalks – are often adorned with red envelopes or other good luck charms.
The traditional foods served are banh chung and banh day, glutinous rice cakes filled with mung bean paste and meat, and wrapped in bamboo leaves. One is square and represents the earth, and the other is round and represents the sky or heavens.
Tet also involves traditions similar to the Chinese New Year customs, like giving out red envelopes, setting off firecrackers and making noise in the streets, and performing lion dances.
You may spot some Vietnamese American groups marching in the Flushing Lunar New Year parade this year. You can also head to Elmhurst or Flushing for the biggest concentration of Vietnamese restaurants.
Tibetan New Year (Losar)
Losar, the most important holiday for Tibetan Buddhists, coincides with Chinese New Year and is celebrated for 15 days, with the main traditions occurring on the first three days. People fill home altars with sweets, breads, fruits, and chang, a fermented beverage similar to beer. They hang flags, burn incense, and offer good wishes to their friends and religious teachers.
Fifteen days after Losar is the Butter Lamp Festival, in which monks traditional carve elaborate, colorful sculptures out of butter (a favorite ingredient of Tibetan food) and line the streets with the sculptures and with lamps that burn butter.
Special foods for Losar include momos (dumplings) and khapse (fried dough twists). You can find the greatest concentration of Tibetan restaurants and culture in Elmhurst, Jackson Heights and Woodside.
Mongolian New Year (Tsagaan Sar)
The Lunar New Year in Mongolia is known as Tsagaan Sar, which means White Moon, and it usually occurs around the Chinese New Year. This year it falls on February 11-13. During Tsagaan Sar, Mongolians traditionally light candles on the family altar and hold greeting ceremonies to honor the eldest members of the family.
One traditional food prepared for Tsagaan Sar is a tower of stacked ul boov (“shoe sole”) cookies, which serves as a centerpiece and is topped with candy and cheese. Other common foods are buuz (dumplings), rice with curds, airag (fermented horse milk), and other dairy products.
There is not a huge Mongolian American population in Queens; the closest community centers seem to be in New Jersey. Unfortunately, all we can find here are restaurants with so-called “Mongolian BBQ” (a style of cooking a mix of ingredients on a flat grill that is not Mongolian at all, but was invented in Taiwan) and Chinese restaurants serving Mongolian-style hot pot. Please tell us if you know of a place to find Mongolian food or culture in Queens!