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  • Alana Stephenson

Celebrating the Moon - Month in History

Happy Lunar New Year! Alternatively known as Chinese New Year, this celebration is held around the world, and in many other East Asian countries such as South Korea and Vietnam. Instead of following the timescale of the Gregorian calendar, where New Year was the 1st January 2023, the Lunisolar calendar follows the monthly cycles of the moon’s phases, therefore Lunar New Year has fallen on the 22nd of this month, with the New Moon. Each New Lunar Year is dedicated to one of twelve animals derived from traditional Chinese folklore, with this year being the Year of the Rabbit.The festival is centred around themes of hope and reunion with family. But what is the history behind following a lunisolar calendar and celebrating the new year this way?

As stated, the lunisolar calendar uses the monthly moon cycles to follow time, with each lunation of the moon lasting approximately 29.5 days. A lunar year follows the period of 12 lunations, split into months between 29-30 days. Therefore the lunar year is between 354 - 355 days long. To bring the slightly shortened year into sync with the seasons, an intercalation of a leap day, week or month is added every second or third year. In contrast, they are 11 to 2 days shorter than solar calendars, where the annual cycles are based on the solar year, or time taken for the Earth to travel around the sun once, fulfilling the tropical cycle, or the seasonal cycle. The commonly used and recognised Gregorian calendar is a solar calendar and is used in the United Kingdom and many other countries today, consisting of 365 days with a leap year added every 4 years to sync with the tropical year.

The first recorded use of a Chinese lunisolar calendar dates back to the Zhou Dynasty, between 1050 and 771 BC. However in China, the Gregorian calendar was adopted in 1912 by the new Republic of China, but the lunisolar calendar was kept to observe the annual Spring Festival. In modernity, this is a 40 day period which includes the Lunar New Year, a weeklong state holiday. It consists of the year’s most important celebratory meal, exchanging hongbao (envelopes filled with cash for luck) and plenty of red to ensure prosperity! Elsewhere, Koreans celebrate with rice cake soup for Seolall and Vietnamese consider flowers of high importance to their celebration, Tet.

Other recordings of lunisolar calendars have been found in Scotland, dating back to 8000 BC. Some have argued for their existence in a 17,000 year old cave painting in France, and on a 27,000 year old bone baton - but these are still debated over their accuracy. Lunar and lunisolar calendars are also found among religious groups: the Hijri calendar observed within Islam and the Hebrew calendar among Jews. There are differences between these though, as Hijri does not use intercalation; the Hebrew calendar adds an additional month every second or third year. Interestingly, there are lunisolar calendars revolving around natural events which are affected by the lunar and solar cycles. On the Banks Islands, in Vanuatu, Pacific Ocean, the reproductive cycle of palolo worms is synchronised with the moon, and in the last quarter of the lunar month, these worms mass on the beaches.

Lunisolar calendars have an expansive history and have consequently impacted a vast number of people, and even animals (hello worms!). Over 1 billion people in China travel to see family for the Lunar New Year and an estimated 1.5 billion celebrate this festival annually. The moon’s journey has been used for thousands of years to trace time and this will surely continue to hold value for many years to come. Next year: February 10th!

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