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Are We Celebrating the Year of the Rabbit or the Year of the Cat?

Written by Liz LindqwisterPublished Jan. 20, 2023 • 2:59pm
Members of the Thien Long Lion Dance Troupe perform in front of the Asian Garden Mall in Westminster on Friday, Feb 16, 2018. | Jeff Gritchen/Digital First Media/Orange County Register via Getty Images

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Bring out the red envelopes and golden-toned citrus—it’s almost Lunar New Year. Slated to fall on Jan. 21 and 22, the Bay Area is once again primed to host a slew of Lunar New Year events for its diverse Asian communities in the coming weeks.

Many see Lunar New Year as a blanket holiday celebrated by the broader community of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Yet, Lunar New Year celebrations across the country reflect the multitude of identities within the Asian community, with a hodgepodge of Buddhist traditions and cultural practices hailing from China, Korea, Japan, Vietnam and other countries.

Though celebrations differ in each community, you might notice a particularly confusing sight this year: Some celebrations honoring the Year of the Rabbit while others call it the Year of the Cat. 

So which one is it? 

Turns out, it’s both—but it depends on which calendar you’re looking at, and which cultural tradition you hail from. 

Many East Asian countries will hop into this weekend celebrating the Year of the Rabbit, and San Francisco is no exception. Five large rabbit statues are on parade throughout the city, and the city’s Asian Art Museum served as the backdrop for the U.S. Postal Service’s unveiling of its Year of the Rabbit forever stamp

Five foam sculptures of rabbits wait to be installed around the city on Jan. 6, 2023, ahead of Chinese Lunar New Year. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

But in Vietnam, celebrations for the new year—called “Tết”—will be decidedly more feline in nature, as they gear up to ring in the Year of the Cat. The reason? Vietnam and China only share 10 of the same 12 zodiac signs on their calendar. Vietnam replaces China’s rabbit with the cat, and its buffalo with the ox. 

There’s a whole host of theories for why Vietnam celebrates the cat in place of the rabbit, ranging from popular Chinese and Vietnamese legends to words getting lost in translation. But scholars say that the cat is a lucky animal in Vietnamese culture, and the last time Vietnam celebrated the Year of the Cat, in 2011, the country experienced a baby boom

Tết is one of the most important holidays in Vietnamese culture and among its diaspora, signifying both the start of a new year and the arrival of spring, based on the Vietnamese calendar. Celebrations tend to start a week in advance, as many Vietnamese folks will return to their nuclear families, clean their homes to provide a fresh slate for the new year and prepare special foods. On the actual weekend, family members exchange red envelopes filled with money, participate in parades and celebrate the holiday from the comfort of family. 

How to Celebrate Both This Weekend 

Most Lunar New Year celebrations in the Bay Area will ring in the Year of the Rabbit, as the majority of East Asian countries stay in line with the Chinese lunar calendar and zodiac. But in San Jose, home to one of the largest populations of Vietnamese Americans, Vietnamese New Year will be celebrated a bit differently, and a week later. 

Though the Lunar New Year weekend coincides with Tết, San Jose will host the largest annual Tết celebration for the Bay Area Vietnamese community on Jan. 27 and 28—complete with DJs, a 3D theme park, the Miss Vietnam California Pageant and lion and dragon dances. 

And if you want a taste of Tết in San Francisco, there are more than a few bars and restaurants in the city offering themed drinks and foods to ring in the new year—and make sure to pop over to a farmer’s market to stock up on your pomelos and citrus. 

Chúc Mừng Năm Mới!!    

The 2019 Lunar New Years Parade begins in San Francisco as performers rush to their places on Feb. 28, 2019. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

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Liz Lindqwister can be reached at [email protected]


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