The Lunar New Year is celebrated across Asia by gathering with family, decorating the house with red couplets and giving red envelopes with money to friends and colleagues. Also known as Spring Festival in China, this 15-day celebration starts on January 22nd and ends with the Lantern Festival on February 5th.

I enjoyed celebrating Spring Festival when I lived in China, and now that I’m back in the U.S. I was excited to experience the recent Asian Lantern Festival at the Central Florida Zoo in Sanford. Hundreds of handcrafted lanterns created an elegantly illuminated experience rich in Asian culture. Here are some of the lanterns from the display.

Lanterns

It wouldn’t be a festival without lanterns. With roots dating back to the Han dynasty, lanterns have been used in China for over 2,000 years to provide light, for worship and to mark the end of the new year. From simple red paper stretched over bamboo to elaborate silk globes adorned with tassels, lanterns decorate the country during the National Day holiday and Lunar New Year. Walking down a lantern-lit corridor is a magical feeling that brings a sense of peace as you pause to admire the beauty.

Zodiac Signs – The Year of the Rabbit

The Chinese Zodiac consists of 12 animal signs that are repeated on a 12-year cycle based on the lunar calendar. The Lunar New Year marks the transition from one animal to the next. This is the year of the rabbit, and people born under this zodiac symbol are thought to be optimistic, calm, easygoing and gentle.

In China, asking someone’s Zodiac sign is a polite way of asking their age, since the symbols are assigned on a recurring 12-year cycle. For example, if you say you’re a sheep, birth years include 1955, 1967, 1979, 1991, 2003 and so on.

Zodiac animal lantern display. Video: Kirsten Harrington

Lucky Goldfish & Lotus Flowers

Fish are an important element in Lunar New Year celebrations because the Chinese word for fish- yu – sounds the same as the word for surplus. Whole steamed fish are often served as part of the New Year’s Eve reunion dinner, believing this will bring abundant wealth and prosperity into the new year.

Lotus flowers exemplify purity because they rise up from muddy water to open into pristine blooms. In Buddhism, the lotus symbolizes the spiritual transformation that takes place when people overcome adverse worldly circumstances.

Goldfish and lotus, symbols of wealth and purity. Photo: Kirsten Harrington
Goldfish and lotus, symbols of wealth and purity. Photo: Kirsten Harrington

Drums and Firecrackers

Chinese legend has it that loud noises scared away Nian, a giant monster who lived in the mountains and came down to destroy villages at the end of the year. Villagers fought back with gongs, drums, firecrackers and their own monster: a dancing lion. Lion dancing continues today at weddings and festivals, both to chase away evil spirits and bring good fortune.

Beating the drums make the lantern glow. Video: Kirsten Harrington

Dragons and Kylin

In the West, dragons are associated with evil or malice, but in China they are an important symbol of power, wealth, and good luck. The kylin (also spelled Qilin) is another auspicious mythological creature that combines features from dragons, horses and wolves. Some people believe this beast has the power to endow a woman with child.

Pandas

While not specifically symbolic to Lunar New Year, the panda is greatly loved in China and around the world. You’ll find them starring in movies, acting in advertising campaigns and as the beloved mascotof the 2022 Beijing Olympics. Their unique black and white coloring is the perfect balance of yin and yang and is thought to be responsible for their gentle nature.

Symbols of peace and friendship, pandas are cultural ambassadors, gifted by the Chinese government as tokens of diplomacy. Prior to the World Cup, China sent a pair of pandas to Qatar. Whether you have the chance to see them at the Chengdu Research Base in China, or visit one at your local zoo, these playful creatures are sure to bring a smile to your face.

COVER: Drum lanterns light the night sky. Photo: Kirsten Harrington