I’ve always been fascinated by the Chinese zodiac and how each year is represented by a different animal. (I’m a monkey according to the Chinese zodiac!) Then a couple of years ago, I happened to buy some Lunar New Year stamps at the post office and realized the Chinese New Year was coming up.
But when does the Chinese New Year officially begin? I looked it up online, but noticed it’s different every year. This particular year—2021—February 12th is the beginning of the Chinese New Year, and next year—2022—it will be on February 1st, but it can vary from between January 20th to February 20th. That’s the short-term answer to “when” … but really, the underlying question is why. Why does the Chinese New Year start on a different date each year?
To know why, you have to look at how the Chinese calendar works. For those of us who use the Gregorian calendar (basically, made up of 12 months with a fixed number of days and an extra day thrown in at the end of February every so often), each year is pretty much equal, made up of 365 days (or 366 in a leap year). But the Chinese year—AKA the Lunar calendar—is based on the rotation of the moon circling the earth along with the earth revolving around the sun. Since the moon orbits the earth (relative to the Sun) once every 29.53 days, a lunar month can be either 29 or 30 days long. (An interesting side note for all you trivia buffs out there—the full moon always appears in the middle of the month when using the lunar calendar.) Additionally, a Chinese Lunar calendar year can have either 12 or 13 months. Yup, instead of adding an extra day every leap year, the Chinese Lunar calendar throws in a whole extra month for its leap years!
Anyway! To more specifically answer that why: because the Western (or Gregorian) calendar measures a year in a different way then the Chinese Lunar calendar, when you overlay them, the dates will not line up.
All of this leads into that last question—just why are there various calendars in the first place? You would think that it’s pretty easy to define a day, a season, a year. But it turns out it’s not. Those days and seasons are not evenly divisible into a single year … which is where the problems creep in. Because the goal of every calendar is to accurately reflect the length of time it takes for the Earth to circumnavigate the Sun. (Another fun fact—the actual time this takes is known as a tropical year!) This is why calendars need to “leap” every so often—to stay on-time. The various calendars—Mayan, Chinese, Western or Gregorian, etc.—are different cultures’ versions of keeping track of time. The Western or Gregorian calendar is the most accurate, but it still isn’t perfect; for every 3,236 years, it’s off by a day…
And don’t fret thinking you’ve lost too much time trying to wrap your head around all this. Just give it a moment and perhaps seize the year? 😉