The Year of the Rat is coming. Here’s what to know about Chinese New Year.

Start cleaning your house.

A lion dance is performed outside of a restaurant in honor of Chinese New Year.
A lion dance is performed outside of a restaurant in honor of Chinese New Year. –Jessica Rinaldi for The Boston Globe

Chinese New Year is next week, and Boston has already begun its preparations. Ahead of the lion dances, dumplings, and red decorations that will be popping up around the city, we asked local experts about the customs and traditions of Chinese New Year, and where to celebrate. 

Here’s what to know.

The Chinese calendar is divided into 12 year cycles, in which each year is represented by a different animal. The rat, the animal for the year that begins on Jan. 25 and ends Feb. 8, is the first animal in this cycle. According to the Chinese zodiac, rats symbolize vitality and intelligence. 

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Chinese New Year follows the lunisolar calendar, so they are not the only culture to celebrate Lunar New Year. “‘Lunar New Year’ is a generic term, meaning any new year calculated according to the phases of the moon,” explained Boston University’s Robert Weller, a professor of anthropology specializing in China. There are a number of East Asian and Southeast Asian celebrations that follow the lunar calendar, including the Vietnamese New Year holiday of Tet and the Korean New Year that both fall on the same day as Chinese New Year. 

Chinese New Year, which is also known as the Spring Festival, is associated with several traditional foods. Fish symbolize abundance and the promise of having plenty of food in the coming year, oranges symbolize good luck, and spring rolls symbolize wealth and are typically eaten to help welcome the spring season. Dumplings are also a favorite for large family gatherings – if you don’t want to make them yourself, readers recently recommended some of the best dumpling restaurants in Boston

There are also traditions that don’t relate to food. Loud noises from fire crackers and dramatic lion dances are meant to scare away evil spirits. Houses are thoroughly cleaned before Chinese New Year, but no cleaning takes place on the day itself, to avoid accidentally sweeping away good luck.  

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Another symbol of good luck can be found in the color red, though not exclusively. “Red is a celebration color,” said director of the Greater Boston Chinese Cultural Association Renne Lu. “Not just for Chinese New Year, but for weddings, openings of new companies, graduations — for any occasion, you can use red.” She added, “[Chinese New Year is] also a time to show appreciation, so you can give money in red envelopes to people in need.” 

If you’re looking for ways to celebrate, check out these upcoming events happening around Boston.

  • Jan. 18: Welcome the Year of the Rat with a lion dance, make your own traditional Chinese lantern, and chat with a zookeeper at the Franklin Park Zoo’s Lunar New Year celebration.
  • Jan. 25: The Wah Lum Kung Fu and Tai Chi Academy will perform a Lion Dance free and open to the public – at the JFK Library.
  • Feb. 1: The Museum of Fine Arts will offer free admission as well as a variety of activities and demonstrations celebrating Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese cultures as a part of its Lunar New Year’s celebration.
  • Feb. 2: The annual Chinese New Years parade will begin at Philips Square and wind its way through Chinatown with traditional lion dances.

Do you celebrate Chinese New Year? Tell us about your traditions and plans to welcome the Year of the Rat in the comments below.

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