What does “Year of the Dragon” mean?

Across the globe, around 2 billion people celebrate the Lunar New Year, an international holiday observed throughout many Asian countries. Each culture that celebrates has its own historically rich customs, traditions, and beliefs, which Globe Aware volunteers can learn about on a volunteer vacation.

We’re approaching the Year of the Dragon. What does that mean?

Olivia Munson
Jan. 27, 2024

Some consider the start of the new year to be when the clock strikes midnight on Dec. 31. While this is true for those who follow the Gregorian calendar, many others celebrate the new year on a different day.

Across the globe, around 2 billion people celebrate the Lunar New Year, an international holiday observed throughout many Asian countries, but not all. The U.S. has its own unique celebrations.

Each year, the date of Lunar New Year changes. But no matter the date, each culture that celebrates has its own historically rich customs, traditions and beliefs.

When is Lunar New Year?

This year, Lunar New Year falls on Saturday, Feb. 10.

Lunar New Year’s date changes every year since it follows a lunar calendar, according to Gang Liu, a professor of Chinese studies at Carnegie Mellon University.

Many Western countries – including the U.S. – use the Gregorian calendar, which is based on a system of 365 days (plus a leap day every four years). Lunar New Year is based the moon’s 12 phases. Each phase cycle spans approximately 29 days with the full calendar being about 354 days long.

On the Gregorian calendar, Lunar New Year generally falls during the last ten days of January or the first ten days of February, says Chen Yang, a professor of Chinese culture and philosophy at George Washington University.

Who celebrates Lunar New Year?

Lunar New Year is celebrated in many Asian cultures, Xiaoquan Raphael Zhang, the director of the Chinese program at American University, previously told USA TODAY. Among these cultures are Chinese, South Korean, Vietnamese, Singaporean, Malaysian, Filipino and Indonesian.

Each culture has its own name for the New Year. For instance, Lunar New Year in China is called the Spring Festival, or chūnjié. South Korea refers to the Lunar New Year as Seollal. In Vietnam, Lunar New Year is called Tết, which is short for Tết Nguyên Đán.

How long is Lunar New Year?

While the Western New Year lasts just one day, Lunar New Year goes beyond that.

In China, Lunar New Year spans from the first new moon to the next full moon, or the fifth day of the lunar month, Zhang previously told USA TODAY.

This begins with the Spring Festival and ends with the Lantern Festival, says Liu. In 2024, Lunar New Year starts Saturday, Feb. 10 and ends Saturday, Feb. 24.

The number of days of celebration varies depending on the country. In South Korea, Seollal usually lasts for three days. In Vietnam, Tết Nguyên Đán is a week long.

What does Lunar New Year signify?

Similar to the Western New Year, Lunar New Year symbolizes letting go of the past and ringing in the present. Celebrations are focused on removing the bad and the old and welcoming the new and the good, says Yang.

The Lunar New Year also is an important time for spending time with family to show one’s love and gratitude, says Yang. People will pay their respects to their ancestors and older family members.

Its significance is similar to Thanksgiving or Christmas among Western cultures, says Liu. “It’s a reunion time; it’s a celebration time.”

An integral part of Lunar New Year is that families will come together to practice cultural customs and to prepare and eat feasts. These customs, however, can vary depending on one’s community, says Liu.

People will clean their homes leading up to the Lunar New Year, says Yang. They also might decorate them with red, which is seen as a color of good fortune in Chinese culture.

On Lunar New Year Eve, families come together to share a large meal, says Yang. Many will prepare fish as a sign of good luck and abundance in the new year. But the fish is not meant to be finished. “In Chinese, surplus has the same pronunciation as fish,” explains Yang.

In many cultures, younger people will receive red envelopes with money on Lunar New Year. “You will usually receive red envelopes from your seniors,” says Liu. Children may also get new clothes in celebration of the new year.

Fireworks are another way many people ring in the Lunar New Year.

What does the Year of the Dragon represent?

It’s time to say goodbye to the year of the rabbit and say hello to the year of the dragon.

In the Chinese Zodiac, there are 12 animals. Each has its own attributes and characteristics. These 12 animals coincide with the lunar calendar in a 12-year cycle.

The order of the Chinese Zodiac is:

  • Rat
  • Ox
  • Tiger
  • Rabbit (in Vietnam, the rabbit is replaced by the cat)
  • Dragon
  • Snake
  • Horse
  • Goat
  • Monkey
  • Rooster
  • Dog
  • Pig

2023 was represented by the rabbit (or cat in Vietnam). Those born under the Zodiac are often seen as caring, attentive to details and likely to follow rules. 2024 will be the year of the dragon.

“A dragon in China, as a culture, it’s a spirit, it’s a symbol,” says Yang. “The dragon is a well-known mascot.” Throughout Chinese history, the dragon has represented good luck, justice, prosperity and strength, he explains.

People born in the year of the dragon are seen as charismatic, intelligent, confident, powerful, naturally lucky and gifted, says Yang.


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