Travel During the Lunar New Year: Etiquette, Gifts & More

by  Christine Wei | Jan 27, 2014
Lunar New Year in China
Lunar New Year in China / Toa55/iStock

Traveling in Asia, or to an Asian community, this week? You’re in luck. The Lunar New Year, typically falling at the end of January or the end of February, is arguably the most festive and also the most interesting time of the year. Big events like lion dances and firecrackers aside, this is when communities everywhere come alive with cheer and tradition, with good wishes and ancient folklore at top of mind.

While it’s unlikely that anyone would expect a traveler to follow all the customs, we can’t think of a better way to get to know a destination’s culture. Plus, helping to usher in auspiciousness is a great way to delight a kind host or helpful friend. Here’s our guide to the general dos and don’ts – there’s naturally an overlap between the traditions of different ethnic groups and countries – as well as a gift guide for visits and meet-ups. 

General etiquette:

Many traditions have to do with starting the year off right. Superstition even says that the way you spend certain days of the new year will reflect the how the rest of your year goes. With that in mind, do generally wear bright colors, especially red. Universal festivity aside, the color red is believed to scare away bad spirits.

Similarly, it’s simple enough to offer candy to friends and hosts during your visit, to sweeten the upcoming year. If you’re working and married, it’s also often customary to give children red envelopes when visiting someone’s home. But don’t worry – the money inside can be in small amounts.

On the flip side, don’t wear white or black, which are mourning colors. Staying in someone’s home? You’ll still want to help with dishes and clean up after yourself, of course, but absolutely no major cleaning – you don’t want to sweep or mop your good fortunes away. And no matter how stuffed you are, take a nibble of whatever you’re offered. Being negative, including saying “no,” is frowned upon.

Bringing gifts? Avoid unlucky numbers – commonly 4 and 7 across Asian cultures – and their multiples. Eight, which which is an homonym for “wealth,” is an exception. (Pairs of numbers and even numbers are generally considered auspicious.)

Finally, note that the first day of the new year is usually a day for family gatherings. Unless you’re specifically extended an invitations to join in the day’s festivities, call on friends another day.

Gift guides:

In Chinese communities: Kumquat plants
In Mandarin, jing ju, the two words that make up kumquats name are homonyms for “gold” and “luck” – and who wouldn’t want the upcoming year to be filled with both? You can buy small potted kumquat plants, sometimes decorated with red ribbons or miniature red envelopes, as gifts for the home. If that’s too difficult to come by, a bag of tangerines and oranges, which have similar-sounding names, are a good equivalent.

In Vietnamese communities: Peach blossom branch
It’s just as important to ward off evil spirits as it is to usher in luck, wealth, and health. According to North Vietnamese folklore, tenacious peach blossom trees do just that – so branches in the home both protect and welcome spring. In Southern Vietnam, go for a brightly budded ochna integerrima plant. As far as fruit baskets go, auspicious packages include sugar-apples, coconut, papaya, and mango. Collectively, their names, cau dua du xai, essentially wishes bountiful riches (literally "enough money to spend") upon the recipient.

In Korean communities: Gift cards and natural health boosters
Typically, putting a lot of thought into the perfect gift is much appreciated, but department store gift cards are among the most popular gifts for peers in Korean communities. People also make small splurges on practical items like toiletries. For elders, health-focused gifts like ginseng and honey nod toward longevity.

In Mongolian communities: Respect
Gifts are not traditionally exchanged during the Mongolian new year. Instead, make sure to greet elders with respect by reaching forward and gently grasping their elbows. Then, similarly to what you do in an air kiss, lightly touch your cheeks together.

A note about Thailand, Cambodia, Japan, and other countries…
Many other cultures beyond the ones mentioned also follow lunar calendars, but their new year celebrations might fall in other months. These include the communities in Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka.

Japan used to follow the lunar calendar, but it adopted the Gregorian solar calendar – the one we follow here in the States – in 1873. So while various festivals and events might crop up at the end of January or in early February for the lunar new year, celebrations are focused around December 31.

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