Happy New Year!
Lunar New Year, that is. In many parts of the world, today (Jan. 22) marks the start of a new year. Lunar New Year is celebrated widely throughout East Asia and marks the beginning of spring and the start of a new lunar cycle. The holiday typically falls on the second new moon after the winter solstice. For that reason, the date changes year to year compared to the fixed holidays of the Gregorian calendar, but it always falls in January or February.
This year, Lunar New Year marks the beginning of the Year of the Rabbit according to the Chinese zodiac, which assigns different animals to years over a 12-year cycle. According to ChineseNewYear.net (opens in new tab), the rabbit is associated with the moon in Chinese culture, perhaps because the shadows of the moon were once thought to represent a rabbit. China's Yutu-2 rover, the longest-running lunar rover in history, gets its name from the Chinese characters for "jade rabbit."
While the Western zodiac is based on constellations, the 12 animals that make up the Chinese zodiac do not correspond to groupings of stars. They instead originate from the animals found in the "Heavenly Gate Race (opens in new tab)" from ancient Chinese folklore and are assigned to 12 divisions of the (roughly) 12-year orbit (opens in new tab) of Jupiter.
The origins of Lunar New Year aren't well known, as it is believed to date back to prehistory, according to TimeAndDate.com (opens in new tab). The date of Lunar New Year is set according to the Chinese calendar, which is based on the changing position of the sun in the sky and the phases of the moon.
Most years in this calendar system, known as a lunisolar calendar, are between 353 and 355 days long. (Leap years have between 383 and 385 days.) China uses the Gregorian calendar for most civil and governmental purposes, while the traditional Chinese calendar is used for holidays and festival dates.
The first lunisolar calendars in China were established during the Zhou dynasty (1046 BC – 256 BC). During this period, the beginning of the new year was set as the day of the last new moon that occurred prior to the winter solstice. As various dynasties rose and fell throughout Chinese history, the calendar was revised and rewritten until it evolved into the Chinese calendar we know today during the late Ming dynasty (opens in new tab) in the 17th century.
Today, Lunar New Year is celebrated worldwide with a variety of traditions. In China, families typically gather together for a 16-day celebration full of feasting, fireworks and gift-giving. Traditional gifts include hongbao, or "red envelopes," which are typically stuffed with cash.
The holiday also sees the largest annual human migration (opens in new tab) on Earth, during which billions of people worldwide travel to their ancestral homes to celebrate with family.