How Lunar New Year Works

By: John Kelly  | 

The Chinese Calendar

The solar year, which is the basis of the Gregorian calendar used around the world, is a bit more than 365 days long. The traditional Chinese calendar, which determines the date of the Lunar New Year, is lunisolar, which means it's based on the cycle of the moon as well as on Earth's course around the sun. A month on this Chinese calendar is 28 days long, and a normal year lasts from 353 to 355 days [source:]. To keep the calendar in sync with the sun and the seasons, the Chinese add an extra leap month about once every three years [source:].

Determining the date of Chinese New Year requires some complicated calculations. In most cases, it falls on the second new moon after the winter solstice. In the Gregorian calendar, the solstice is around Dec. 21. That's why Chinese New Year typically occurs in late January or during one of the first three weeks of February.


The years of the Chinese calendar follow a 12-year cycle. Each year is associated with one of 12 animal symbols, such as the tiger, rabbit and dragon [source:]. Every new year marks the end of the reign of one animal and the beginning of the next. For example, 2012 was the year of the dragon, 2013 was the year of the snake, and 2014 was the year of the horse. Those born under the sign of an animal are thought to possess the qualities associated with it. According to these beliefs, dragon year people are proud, self-assured and direct; those born in a snake year are wise and creative; horse people are cheerful and intelligent [source:].

The Chinese calendar was once widely used in Asia, and versions of the Lunar New Year are celebrated in other Asian countries. In Vietnam, for example, the holiday is called Tet. It's a three-day celebration that includes many of the customs that are followed in China, such as feasts of special foods and paying respect to ancestors. Japan and Korea have long used the Gregorian calendar, but people in those countries incorporate some of the same customs into their Jan. 1 New Year festivities.

Many individual days of the Chinese New Year period have special meaning attached to them. We'll look at those on the next page.