Why Lunar New Year typically prompts the world’s largest annual migration

Observed by billions of people, the festival also known as Chinese New Year or Spring Festival is marked by themes of reunion and hope.

Published 11 Feb 2021, 12:20 GMT, Updated 31 Jan 2022, 12:39 GMT
Vietnam Lunar New Year
Lunar New Year is a time for family reunions and hope. The holiday marks start of the new year of China’s traditional lunisolar calendar, and it is now observed around the world—including in Vietnam, pictured here, where the celebration is known as Tet.
Photograph by Hau Dinh, AP

Celebrated around the world, it usually prompts the planet’s largest annual migration of people. And though it is known to some in the West as Chinese New Year, it isn’t just celebrated in China. Lunar New Year, which falls this year on Tuesday, February 1, is traditionally a time for family reunions, plenty of food, and some very loud celebrations.

How Lunar New Year celebrations began

Modern China actually uses a Gregorian calendar like most of the rest of the world. Its holidays, however, are governed by its traditional lunisolar calendar, which may have been in use from as early as the 21st century B.C. When the newly founded Republic of China officially adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1912, its leaders rebranded the observation of the Lunar New Year as Spring Festival, as it is known in China today.

Learn why some people celebrate Christmas in January.

As its name suggests, the date of the lunar new year depends on the phase of the moon and varies from year to year. Today, Spring Festival is celebrated in China and Hong Kong; Lunar New Year is also celebrated in South Korea, Tibet, Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, and places with large Chinese populations. Though the festival varies by country, it is dominated by themes of reunion and hope.

An Indonesian dance group practices a dragon dance ahead of this year’s Lunar New Year—which will usher in the Year of the Tiger. Observers spend weeks preparing for the holiday; customs vary, but include sacrifices to ancestors, firecrackers, and reunion feasts with family.
Photograph by Andi M Ridwan, SIPA USA/AP
During the 40-day Lunar New Year travel season, many observers travel to reunite with their families. The number of railway passenger trips in China is expected to jump by 28.5 percent in 2022—portending busy weeks ahead at this train depot in China's Gansu Province.
Photograph by Du Zheyu, Xinhua/Redux

How Lunar New Year is celebrated

For Chinese people, Spring Festival lasts for 40 days and has multiple sub-festivals and rituals. The New Year itself is a seven-day-long state holiday, and on the eve of the new year, Chinese families traditionally celebrate with a massive reunion dinner. Considered the year’s most important meal, it is traditionally held in the house of the most senior family member.

 
Each year of the lunisolar calendar is represented by one of 12 animals, called the Chinese Zodiac, which are thought to determine the personalities of people born that year. They are typically incorporated into festivities—like these tiger-themed decorations in Singapore.
Photograph by Then Chih, Xinhua/Redux

The holiday may be getting more modern, but millennia-old traditions are still held dear in China and other countries. In China, people customarily light firecrackers, which are thought to chase away the fearful monster Nian. (However, the tradition has been on the decline in recent years due to air pollution restrictions that have hit the fireworks industry hard.) The color red is used in clothing and decorations to ensure prosperity, and people exchange hongbao, red envelopes filled with lucky cash. In Korea, people make rice cake soup and honor their ancestors during Seollal. And during Tet, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year, flowers play an important role in the celebrations.

Lunar New Year has even spawned its own form of travel: During chunyun, or spring migration, hundreds of million people travel to their hometowns in China for family reunions and New Year’s celebrations. In past years, billions of travelers have taken to the road during the 40-day period. Known as the world’s largest human migration, chunyun regularly clogs already busy roads, trains and airports. 

Learn about Lunar New Year with your kids.

But this year, the pandemic is yet again stifling the festive tradition. The Chinese government has discouraged travel by enforcing strict lockdowns and enacting stringent testing and quarantine policies as part of its zero-COVID policy. Still, China estimates that 1.18 billion people will travel during this year’s Spring Festival. While that is less than half of the 2019 number, Chinese national media notes that it is 36 percent more travelers than last year—proof of the holiday’s enduring significance for those who associate it with luck and love.

This story was originally published on January 2, 2020. It has been updated.

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