What Is the Lunar New Year?

by Carla Jean McKinney

The Lunar New Year begins the year according to the lunar calendar. Unlike the Gregorian calendar generally used in Western countries, the lunar calendar is determined by the cycles and phases of the moon. The Lunar New Year is best known as the Chinese New Year, although this calendar is observed by other cultures as well.

Lunar Calendars

A purely lunar calendar is determined exclusively by the phases and cycles of the moon. Each new year begins on the day of the first new moon of the year, which occurs in late January or early February of the standard Gregorian calendar. Since a lunar calendar follows moon cycles rather than a series of fixed months, dates are movable depending on the actual day the lunar cycle begins. The lunar calendar always consists of 12 lunar months and varies by 11 or 12 days each year.

Lunisolar Calendars

Most lunar calendars are actually lunisolar calendars, which keep months according to lunar cycles but also add intercalary, or additional, months to eliminate the "drift" of true lunar calendars and synchronize the calendar with the solar year. A solar year has about 12 lunations, or lunar cycles, although some years may have 13. The Lunar New Year as observed by the Chinese and most other cultures is based on a lunisolar calendar.

Observing Lunar New Year

Although the Chinese New Year is synonymous with Lunar New Year, other cultures mark the beginning of the year at this time as well. Vietnamese, Korean and other Asian cultures traditionally follow the lunisolar calendar and the Hebrew and Hindu traditional calendars are also based on moon cycles. Of these, the Islamic version is the only purely lunar calendar, having exactly 12 lunar months.

Celebrating Lunar New Year Around the World

The most familiar of Lunar New Year celebrations, Chinese New Year festivities begin at the new moon marking the first day of the new year and end at the full moon, 15 days later. Solnal, the Korean New Year, and Tet, the Vietnamese New Year, are also celebrated at this time, in late January or early February. Other cultures following a lunar or lunisolar calendar celebrate the New Year at different times. For example, the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashana, occurs in September, and Songkran, theThai New Year, occurs in April.

Photo Credits

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About the Author

Carla Jean McKinney has been writing professionally since 1989. She is the author of three nonfiction books and numerous published short works, as well as articles on natural sciences and the environment. Also a photographer, McKinney earned her Master of Arts at the University of Arizona and is a graduate of the Sessions School of Design.