How to celebrate the Chinese New Year and welcome the Year of the Wood Dragon

Jan. 2, 2024
It's the Year of the Dragon. Everyone can join in celebrations for Chinese New Year. Photo: Getty Images.
It’s the Year of the Dragon. Everyone can join in celebrations for Chinese New Year. Photo: Getty Images.

Chinese New Year celebrates prosperity and respect and, like many American holidays, includes decorations, gifts, family gatherings, remembrances and symbolism.

“It is like the combination of America’s Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day,” said Karen Wong-Brown, whose nonprofit, Unified Workforce, is hosting the Asian Lunar Year Celebration at the Fort Collins’ Lincoln Center on Feb. 10.

In 2024, the Chinese New Year, also called Lunar New Year, falls on February 10, though many people who celebrate the Asian holiday start preparing about two weeks beforehand. Throughout Colorado, organizations and communities host Lunar New Year celebrations to honor America’s rich immigrant history and to increase cultural awareness and acceptance.

In the new year, many people embrace Chinese New Year as a cultural celebration that brings good fortune and good health.

When does Chinese New Year start?

Chinese New Year is also called Lunar New Year because it falls on the second new moon after the winter solstice on Dec. 21. It follows the lunar calendar, so it is celebrated on a different date each year, between Jan. 21 and Feb. 20.

The lunar calendar is based on the moon’s monthly orbit around the Earth. In contrast, the Gregorian calendar, used in most parts of the world, including China, is based on the Earth’s revolution around the sun.

Is Lunar New Year only celebrated in China?

Lunar New Year (or a similar interpretation) is celebrated in China, North and South Korea, Vietnam, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Philippines, Brunei and East India. There are opportunities around the globe to join in a Lunar New Year celebration and welcome The Year of the Dragon.

Although most people know of this holiday as “Chinese New Year,” Wong-Brown purposely named her event “Asian Lunar Year Celebration” to include all the countries that celebrate a new year based on a lunar calendar. The co-sponsors for the event are The BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) Alliance of Larimer County and Fort Collins Action Network (FCCAN).

Why does Chinese New Year have animals?

The Year of the Wood Dragon starts Feb. 10, 2024, and continues until the next Lunar New Year on Jan. 28, 2025, according to the Chinese calendar.

As a child, Wong-Brown’s grandfather told her the century-old story of the zodiac animals. The 12 zodiac animals were winners of a race organized by the Jade Emperor, one of the most important gods in traditional Chinese religion.

Like the Western zodiac, the Chinese zodiac has 12 animals. But instead of one for each month, it is one animal for the entire year.

Each animal has its traits. According to the zodiac, the wood dragon is creative and curious and loves to dive into and try all aspects of life. The dragon has drive and motivation and is proud and self-confident. Famous wood dragons include Martin Luther King, Ringo Starr and Shirley Temple.

What are some Chinese New Year traditions?

Everything is about symbolism, said Wong-Brown. From the clothes you wear and the food you eat to when you clean your house — it is all done to bring luck and prosperity into the new year.

For example, numbers have significance because when pronounced in Chinese, they sound similar to other Chinese words. For example, when spoken in Chinese, the number eight sounds like the word “success,”  nine sounds like the word  “longevity,” and two sounds like “harmony.” Four is considered extremely unlucky because it sounds like the word “death” in Chinese, Wong-Brown said.

young girl opens a red envelope, a tradition that is part of the Chinese New Year celebrations.
During the Chinese New Year celebrations, elders recognize the younger generation by giving them a red envelope, usually containing money or something of monetary value. Source: Getty Images.

Here are some other symbolisms Wong-Brown highlights:

Chinese New Year cleaning

About two weeks before the big celebration, it is time for cleaning to sweep away the dust of the past year. Cleaning occurs before the Lunar New Year because, on Feb. 10, it’s bad luck to clean the house as you could sweep out all the luck you just brought in.

The same goes for washing or cutting your hair — do it before New Year’s Day. And put on new clothes — preferably in colors of red and gold. Red symbolizes good luck, and gold represents prosperity.

Black and white colors are considered bad luck.

Chinese New Year decorations

After the home is clean, decorations in red and gold are hung, much like decorations that people hang to celebrate Christmas.

Honoring ancestors and elders in the new year

Chinese New Year is similar to Dia De Los Muertos (Day of the Dead). The holiday is an opportunity to pay respects to ancestors by placing flowers, fruit or other gifts at an altar or grave.

On Lunar New Year’s Eve, extended family members get together for a big feast, and elders are recognized at this time, Wong-Brown said.

“The younger generation will say something to the elders that wishes them a happy new year and good health,” she said. “And if they have a job, we include good wishes for them in their job, too. And we bow our head and do a gesture for our ancestors.”

Giving red envelopes

Elders also recognize the younger generation during this time by giving them a red envelope, usually containing money or something of monetary value.

“When I was growing up, I remember most the red envelopes with money in them,” Wong-Brown said. “The children pay respect to the elders and in return, we got red envelopes to have a prosperous new year.”

She continues that tradition by giving her nieces and nephews red envelopes.

The Lion Dance

“The origin of the lion dance is to ward off evil spirits,” Wong-Brown said. “But in the past, it was used as a competition for martial art schools. Schools would compete with one another in the lion dance, and the best schools would get funding that year.”

What food do you eat for Chinese New Year?

“We would have a big feast at the end of the day, and everything we ate symbolizes something,” Wong-Brown said.

At Wong-Brown’s family table, there are dumplings and whole fish for prosperity, noodles for longevity, spring rolls for wealth and fruit for wellness. Sweet rice balls for dessert symbolize family unity and togetherness.

“I remember I was always happy with family and surroundings,” she said. “And not more so than other days, but you only say nice things to people so they have a prosperous new year.”

About the author

Kati Blocker has always been driven to learn and explore the world around her. And every day, as a writer for UCHealth, Kati meets inspiring people, learns about life-saving technology, and gets to know the amazing people who are saving lives each day. Even better, she gets to share their stories with the world.

As a journalism major at the University of Wyoming, Kati wrote for her college newspaper. She also studied abroad in Swansea, Wales, while simultaneously writing for a Colorado metaphysical newspaper.

After college, Kati was a reporter for the Montrose Daily Press and the Telluride Watch, covering education and health care in rural Colorado, as well as city news and business.

When she's not writing, Kati is creating her own stories with her husband Joel and their two young children.