The calendar we use is based on the time it takes the Earth to circle the Sun. That time (365 days) is divided into 12 month. Sol is another name for the Sun, so our calendar is called a solar calendar.
Another type of calendar – one used by billions of people in the world – is based on the phases of the Moon. Luna is another name for the Moon, so this calendar is called a lunar calendar.
If you look at the moon night after night, it seems to change shape. The moon, of course, isn’t actually changing shape. What is changing, is what we are able to see.
When the Moon is on the far side of the Earth, the part of the Moon facing us is in full sunlight, so it looks totally bright. We call this a full moon.
When the Moon is between the Earth and the Sun, the part of the Moon facing us is in shadow, so it looks totally dark. We call this the new moon.
The phases of the Moon are the changes in what we can see, from the new moon to the full moon and back again.
Night after night the moon goes from being dark, to a sliver to slowly becoming full. We call that a waxing moon. And then, night after night, the full moon slowly goes back to being a new moon, we call that a waning moon.
Waxing means growing; waning means shrinking.
It takes the Moon about 29 and a half days to orbit the Earth. That amount of time doesn’t match up well with our 30 and 31-day months. According to our calendar, New Year’s Day always happens on January 1. But according to our calendar, the lunar New Year happens on a different date each year.
For us, this can be confusing, but for people who use a lunar calendar, it’s easy. Some of the billions of people in the world use a lunar calendar: China and other countries in East Asia; the Hindu and Buddhist countries of South and Southeast Asia; followers of Islam and Jewish people of the Middle East; and the Nisga’a people of Canada.
We don’t have space here to discuss all these countries and peoples and their calendars and ways of celebrating the Lunar New Year, so let’s look at just one, the Chinese.
The Chinese New Year begins on the new moon that happens in the middle of winter. According to our calendar, the Chinese New Year begins sometime between January 21 and February 20. It’s different each year. This year, for example, the Chinese New Year is on January 22. Last year it was on February 1, and next year it will be on February 10.
We celebrate New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. The Chinese celebrate for a longer period of time. They go from the new moon until the full moon. That means their New Year’s celebration lasts 15 days! They call this the Spring Festival, even though it might still be quite cold at the time.
The most important part of Chinese New Year is family reunions. By tradition, everyone goes back home for a New Year’s Eve supper, so there is a lot of traveling at that time of year. Mostly it is younger people who live in cities traveling out into the country to visit parents and grand parents.
If someone can’t make it to the supper, an empty place is left for them with a pair of chopsticks.
At these suppers, foods might include spring rolls, dumplings, noodles, steamed fish or chicken, rice cakes (known as nian gao), and vegetable dishes.
House cleaning is a tradition during the Spring Festival. It’s a time to sweep away bad luck and make room for good luck.
Red is an important color during the Chinese New Year. This color is believed to scare monsters away, so many people will use red decorations in their homes and businesses.
Parades are another important part of Chinese New Year.
Other peoples and cultures each have their own customs and times and ways of celebrating the Lunar New Year. For us, knowing the difference between a solar calendar and a lunar calendar is an important step in understanding and appreciating others.
• The Chinese Spring Festival used to be a time to pray to gods for good planting and harvest seasons. People also prayed to their ancestors, who they thought of as gods. This is shown in the movie, Mulan.
• The Chinese believe in a 12-year cycle. Each of the years has the name of an animal. This year, 2023, is known as the year of the Rabbit. The other years are called Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, Pig, Rat, Ox, and Tiger.
• On the Hebrew lunar calendar, the new year starts on a new moon between September 5 and October 5. On the Islamic calendar, the new year starts in July or August.