Chinese New Year 2021: When is it? What does the ox symbolize? How will it be celebrated during COVID-19 pandemic?

Say goodbye to the Year of the Rat, and hello to the Year of the Ox.

Lunar New Year – also known as the Chinese New Year or Spring Festival – begins Friday, ushering in the second animal on the Zodiac with the second new moon after the winter solstice.

Though the occasion is meant to be spent with family and friends, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic means that celebrations around the world – from the United States to Britain to China – will look different this year for the 1.5 billion people who observe the occasion.

Here’s what to know about the holiday, and what may change with COVID-19:

What does Lunar New Year signify?

The new year is a chance to start fresh, see loved ones and share in the hope of good things to come.

Vickie Lee, author of the children’s book “Ruby’s Chinese New Year,” told USA TODAY last year that Lunar New Year as “the most important and the most popular holiday for Chinese people and in the Chinese culture.”

“It’s a very joyful holiday (when) you’re supposed to go home, see your family,” she adds of the time spanning about 15 days. “In China, they celebrate it for two full weeks, and people actually travel home and from far, far away.”

Zhaojin Zeng, a professor of East Asian history at the University of Pittsburgh, compared the occasion to Thanksgiving in America, emphasizing the importance of time spent with family.

A worker installs traditional Chinese lanterns along an alley ahead of the Lunar New Year of the Ox in Beijing on February 2, 2021.

When does Chinese New Year start?

As the holiday is tied to the year’s first new moon, the timing of it will vary. It can fall in January or early February, Lee told USA TODAY.

In China, the festival lasts 15 days, starting with a feast the night of New Year’s Eve and ending this year with the Spring Lantern Festival on Feb. 26. Vietnam’s Tết Nguyên Đán goes for up to a week, and Lunar New Year in South Korea, known as Seollal, runs for three days.

Why does Lunar New Year fall on different days?

Because of differences between the solar-lunar and Gregorain calendar, which the United States follows. The Gregorian calendar is based on the Earth’s cycle orbiting the sun, while the solar-lunar combines that with the moon’s cycle orbiting the earth.

In major U.S. cities such as Los Angeles, New York City and San Francisco, events celebrating the new year take place in the weeks before and after the first day of the lunar year.

The Lunar New Year typically falls between Jan. 21 and Feb. 20. Next year, the celebration will begin Tuesday, Feb. 1.

How is Lunar New Year celebrated?

In addition to cleaning one’s home, and adorning it with red banners, artwork and flowers, a priority in preparing for the holiday is making meals, said Lee.

“This holiday, like so many holidays in other cultures, is centered around food. So there’s several days of preparation where you’re making… very sort of symbolic dishes like a whole fish,” she says. “A whole fish symbolizes prosperity.”

She also said dumplings (symbolizing wealth) will be present and along with noodles (representing longevity).

2021 is the Year of the Ox. What does it represent?

Feb. 12 marks the first day of the xin chou year, or Year of the Metal Ox under the Lunar New Year sexagenary cycle,

Hong Kong-based feng shui master Thierry Chow told CNN that the ox is a hardworking zodiac sign that signifies movement.

“So, hopefully, the world will be less static than last year and get moving again in the second half of the year,” she said.

She added that the metal element of the year represents an emphasis on metal industries in 2021, from jewelry to “the needle of a syringe.”

How are people celebrating Chinese New Year in a pandemic?

While celebrations typically vary around the world, they will be especially different this year as the pandemic forces people to stay at home and not visit family.

In New Jersey, where Asian Americans account for 10% of the state’s 8.9 million people, those that mark the day are arranging everything from drive-thru celebratory meals to Zoom performances to ensure that this year will be one to remember.

“We’re helping to bring normal to not a normal year,” said Yoon Kim, director of the Korean American Association of New Jersey. The organization will distribute food at a drive-by event and will also host a food drive this weekend.

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And in Arizona, organizers of Phoenix’s Chinese Week said last year they would not go forward with any in-person celebrations for Lunar New Year 2021. Instead, elements of the festival will be accessible online.

At bus and train stations in China, there is no sign of the annual Lunar New Year rush. The government has called on the public to avoid travel following new coronavirus outbreaks. The South China Morning Post reported that Hong Kong’s annual Lunar New Year night parade will be replaced by an online shopping event.

Despite that, the government says people will make 1.7 billion trips during the holiday, but that is down 40% from 2019.

Contributing: Mary Chao, The Record; KiMi Robinson, Arizona Republic; The Associated Press.

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