On Jan. 22, 2023, more than a billion people globally will welcome the Year of the Rabbit – or the Year of Cat, depending on which cultural traditions they follow – as the start of the Lunar New Year. In the New York City public school district, Lunar New Year has been observed as a school holiday since 2015.
The Lunar New Year is sometimes called the Chinese New Year, because it follows a calendar that was developed in China; but it is also celebrated in various parts of Asia, such as Korea and Vietnam. Tibetan and Mongolian cultures follow a similar calendar that will start the Year of the Rabbit about a month later, on Feb. 20.
While this calendar is sometimes just called “lunar,” it adds an extra month every few years to stay in sync with the solar cycle, so it’s technically lunar and solar, or lunisolar. This means that the date of the Lunar New Year in the Gregorian calendar changes from year to year but always falls in January or February. The Gregorian calendar is the solar calendar used today in most parts of the world, including the United States.
As a scholar of East Asian religions, I am familiar with the wide range of lunar and lunisolar calendars used in different religions and cultures, and especially with the religious significance of the East Asian lunisolar calendar.
While this lunisolar calendar brings people together, different countries and cultures have their own legends and customs surrounding the New Year. Even the animal associated with the year can vary.
Year of the Rabbit or Year of the Cat?
In most parts of East Asia, the new year that begins on Jan. 22 corresponds to the rabbit, and also to the element of water and the feminine yin force. The cycle takes 60 years to complete, so 60th birthdays across East Asia are times for special celebrations.
However, the animal associations of the zodiac can vary: In Vietnam, Jan. 22 will usher in the Year of the Cat instead. The most recent Year of the Cat, in 2011, saw a baby boom in Vietnam because of the good luck associated with that zodiac sign.
One explanation among scholars for why Vietnamese culture celebrates it as the Year of the Cat is that the earthly branch corresponding to “rabbit” is pronounced mao in Mandarin and meo in Vietnamese, which sounds similar to the Vietnamese word for “cat.”
Another explanation comes from two variations of a popular legend about how the 12 zodiac animals were chosen. According to that legend, either the Buddha or the Jade Emperor, head of the Chinese pantheon, organized a race across a river to choose the zodiac animals and their order.
In the Chinese version, the cat and rat were riding across a river on an ox when the rat, in its drive to be first, pushed the cat into the water so that the cat arrived last and was disqualified. The rabbit was crossing the river by hopping on stones sticking out of the water, but with one lucky leap it landed on a floating log that swiftly carried it to shore, so that the rabbit finished fourth. However, in the Vietnamese version – which lacks a rabbit – the cat could swim and ended up arriving fourth.