What is Lunar New Year? A look at the annual celebration

For the Asian American and Asian diaspora community, Lunar New Year, typically celebrated between late January and early February, is a time of cultural potlucks, family gatherings, red envelopes and new beginnings.

But this year, many who woke up to celebrate on the morning of Jan. 22 were instead left in shock and fear after hearing news of a mass shooting in Monterey Park that occurred on the weekend of the beloved holiday.

“Lunar New Year is a time to get together and celebrate with people familiar with it and introduce my culture to people who are not familiar with it,” said Irvine resident Jane Yao, who attended the festival in Monterey Park with her friends on Saturday afternoon, just hours before the shooting. “It’s so scary this happened.”

A gunman opened fire in a downtown Monterey Park dance hall on Saturday night, killing five men and five women and wounding at least 10 others, law enforcement officials have said. The dance venue is near the city’s Lunar New Year festival celebration.

Over the weekend, many Lunar New Year events were scheduled across Los Angeles, Orange County and the Inland Empire region, and some went on with enhanced security measures following the shooting.

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Lunar New Year is one of the oldest annual traditions following an ancient lunar calendar from China. The holiday is typically celebrated by Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese cultures, among others, on the second new moon after the Dec. 21 winter solstice.

The Lunar or Chinese New Year celebration starts on the new moon on the first day of the new year and ends on the full moon 15 days later. In China, the 2023 “Year of the Rabbit” began on Sunday, Jan. 22, celebrating the year of the water rabbit in the Chinese Zodiac calendar.

Also known as the Spring Festival, or chūnjié, the holiday is widely celebrated globally and in areas with large Chinese populations. Traditions include attending big family feasts, eating dumplings and rice cakes, wearing red, setting off firecrackers — and the popular giving of red envelopes, which symbolize well wishes for the new year ahead.

The Vietnamese Lunar New Year celebration known as the Tet festival celebrates new beginnings and the coming of spring with traditional foods, cultural performances and events. It’s a shortened form of “Tết Nguyên Đán,” a way to say “Lunar New Year” in Vietnamese.

In the Vietnamese zodiac calendar, 2023 marks the Year of the Cat, the fourth sign in the Vietnamese Zodiac. Some believe that this is because the Chinese word for rabbit sounds like the Vietnamese word for cat.

The nonprofit Asian Americans Advancing Justice welcomed the rabbit and cat zodiac signs as “a shift in pace,” both representing “empathy, reflection and peace” in 2023.

“The rabbit embodies longevity, peace, and prosperity, bringing well wishes into the new year,” the nonprofit said. “The cat represents longevity, determination, and good fortune while also placing great importance on peace and quietude. As sensitive creatures, they are considerate of others and kind in nature. … As we celebrate the Year of the Rabbit and the Year of the Cat, we hope to carry our compassion, attentiveness, and introspection throughout this new year.”

Family customs for Tet include gift-giving and red envelopes, feasting on traditional fruits and sweet rice cakes and deep cleaning out the home before the new year.

The Vietnamese American community in Little Saigon will celebrate its 41st annual Tet Festival, put on by the Union of Vietnamese Student Associations, this coming weekend; the city of Westminster hosted a parade on Sunday, Jan. 22.

As the investigation into the Monterey Park shooting continued, many expressed sadness that this year’s holiday — a time of hope and new beginnings — will be marked by the tragedy.

Rep. Judy Chu, D-Pasadena, attended the Monterey Park festival earlier Saturday. After learning of the shooting, she said she was heartbroken for the victims and their families in her hometown.

“While there is so much we do not yet know, we do know this occurred at a time that should have been very special to Asian Americans in this country and around the world,” Chu said. “Lunar New Year is the highlight of the year for Asian American communities and a time of celebration and of being with our families.”

“We deserve to be safe while we celebrate our holidays,” Chu added on social media.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis, who oversees Monterey Park as part of her district, also attended the celebration hours before the shooting. She recognized the significance of Monterey Park, an area with “one of the largest percentages of AAPI residents in the U.S.”

“In what should have been a morning full of celebration honoring the Lunar New Year, our community is waking up to the shocking news and grieving the loss of loved ones and neighbors,” Solis said.

Bopomofo Cafe, a popular Asian restaurant in nearby San Gabriel, closed its doors until further notice on Sunday as a security precaution for its staff and customers.

“We are all still stunned and shocked that a mass shooting could happen so close, especially on what should be a joyful and festive weekend,” the restaurant said on Instagram.

Monterey Park’s Lunar New Year celebration on Sunday was canceled as a safety precaution, while the investigation is active, officials said.

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