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What The Year Of The Rat Means & How To Celebrate It

Erika W. Smith

This weekend, the Year of the Rat begins. January 25 is the Lunar New Year, aka Chinese New Year. It marks the beginning of the lunisolar Chinese calendar, which is based on the phases of the moon and the sun’s longitude, and has been in use since the 14th century B.C.E. Although the modern Gregorian calendar is the go-to for day-to-day life, the lunisolar calendar is used to calculate festival dates, and some special occasions, such as weddings.

The Lunar New Year is also celebrated in other parts of Southeast Asia, such as Vietnam, as well as among the diaspora throughout the world, including in the United States. The New Year falls on the date of the New Moon closest to the beginning of spring, always sometime between January 21 and February 21. It’s also called Spring Festival. Celebrations continue for 15 days, ending with the Lantern Festival.

The Chinese zodiac cycle consists of 12 animal signs, one for each lunisolar year. This upcoming cycle is the Year of the Rat, the first sign; last year was the Year of the Pig. In folklore, the Jade Emperor held a competition to decide the zodiac animals. The rat asked the ox to carry him across the river, but jumped down before the ox crossed the finish line, winning the race. 

According to the China Institute, the rat is a symbol of fertility and abundance. People born during this year (or previous Years of the Rat, such as 1984, 1996, or 2008) are believed to be intelligent, creative, and resourceful, and have the ability to form strong social bonds. 

Additionally, each sign is associated with one of five elements — and this year’s is metal. So to get specific, 2020 is also the Year of the Metal Rat. Metal symbolizes stability and longevity, and according to the Daily Telegraph, those born in 2020 will “live a stable life and have the ability turn unlucky events into fortune.”

Now, the important part: how to celebrate. “Chinese New Year is the biggest and most important holiday for Chinese people all around the world,” Yue-Sai Kan, co-chair of the China Institute, tells Refinery29. “It has always been a time of family reunion. In China, Chunyun, also known as the Spring Festival Travel Rush, is considered the biggest annual human migration on earth,” she says.

“Millions of people travel back to their hometown to be with their family for the festivities,” she adds. “Air, train, and bus tickets are sold out weeks ahead of time. In recent years, many Chinese residents actually choose to travel outside of the country for the New Year to avoid the chaos. It is estimated that three billion trips in and out of China will be made during this year’s Chunyun from January 10 to February 18!” 

The China Institute explains that in legend, a monster named Nian (whose name means “year”) is known for haunting people at the end of every lunar year. Nian is afraid of the color red and fireworks, so these both abound during Chinese New Year celebrations. Observers might also visit a family shrine or set one up in their home; display couplets and decor; attend a Lion Dance; eat symbolic, lucky foods; and give or receive red envelopes of “lucky money.” 

“Growing up in Hong Kong, my sisters and I used to celebrate the Chinese New Year by going to the flower market with our father to buy plum blossoms and narcissus flowers, which were used to decorate our home,” Kan shares. “We got to wear new clothes and ate special foods like rice cakes, fish, and dumplings that were prepared for the occasion. After we emigrated to America, we do a lot less, but one tradition I will always keep is to continue preparing red envelopes for my friends’ children that I see over the holiday,” she says.

“In the 1980s, I have fond memories of attending the live Spring Festival Gala in Beijing which aired on China Central Television every New Year’s Eve,” Kan says. “It was a great honor to be included in China’s biggest show with an audience of over one billion. Nowadays, it is very convenient for us Chinese Americans to just watch the Gala online.”

The New York City metropolitan area has the largest Chinese population in the United States (with Los Angeles at number two), and the parade and Lion Dance in Chinatown draws about 500,000 people every year, according to Newsweek. Additionally, the China Institute is throwing a family festival on February 2, and featuring other programs including a paper lantern-making workshop, a cultural seminar, and an orchestral concert. Happy New Year! 

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