CENTRAL ILLINOIS (WCIA) — People of Central Illinois are celebrating the Lunar New Year.

It’s the most significant and widely celebrated holiday in many Asian cultures, marking the beginning of a new year on the lunar calendar, whose months are in moon cycles.

There were no Chinese zodiac signs thousands of years ago, so the Jade Emperor wanted to select 12 animals to be his guards. He sent an immortal being into man’s world to spread the message that the earlier an animal went through the Heavenly Gate, the better the rank one would have.

The animals — rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig –set off on their race. One of these animals is represented each year in a cycle, all with their own characteristics.

This year is the Year of the Rabbit because of their gentle nature and often seen as nurturing figures full of compassion.

U of I Asian American Cultural Center

Sang S. Lee, Assistant Director at the U of I Asian American Cultural Center, said each Asian country has traditions that are specific to them, but a very common theme of the holiday each year is family and food.

“Foods have special meanings,” Lee said. “For example, in China people may eat long noodles to represent long life, fish for success, and dumplings to represent prosperity and wealth. In Korea, people eat rice cake soup for good luck and health.”

The U of I Asian American Cultural Center offered a Lunar New Year-themed celebration on Friday from 5-6:30 p.m. at ISR Hall on campus that will feature a special menu for the holiday.

Other similar celebrations include a Lunar New Year trivia night on Jan. 31st at 7 p.m. at the Illini Union and educational displays at some campus locations like Grainger Library, the Main Library, McKinley Health Center, and Lincoln Hall.

Over 8,000 Lunar New Year activity kits will also be distributed on campus including a red envelope with a chocolate coin, a few Asian candies from countries that celebrate the holiday, and a paper rabbit craft activity.

King Elementary School in Urbana

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School in Urbana has a large population of students from China and other countries that celebrate the Lunar New Year. The school said they celebrated early to accommodate some families who will be traveling to China for celebrations.

“The celebration is very important to our Chinese families and our school is special in that we have a large Chinese population,” said music teacher Cara Maurizi, who took part in the celebration. “We also wish to celebrate early so that students will be introduced to the holiday and then classroom teachers can continue to host activities in their classrooms to learn more about the event too.

Courtesy: Cara Maurizi

Chinese students of all grade levels performed in the celebration on Jan. 12 which also included a dragon and lion parade, a poem in Chinese and English, and a traditional Chinese New Year song.

“A memorable moment for me was when the students started their Chinese dance and the gym went quiet as the students watched,” Maurizi said. “It was so great to see such support and attention for their classmates!”

Maurizi, along with Dr. Lihui Zhang, and second-grade teachers Dr. Sally Thompson and Anna Kozlowski led the assembly. Maurizi said they thank the U of I Asian American Cultural Center for their supplies and professional development opportunities which provided lesson plans and materials.

How You Can Celebrate Lunar New Year Too

Over 1.5 billion people celebrate Lunar New Year around the world, and you can celebrate too.

“It’s a lot like Thanksgiving in the U.S., with gifts added to the celebration,” Lee said. “In bigger cities, there may be fireworks and dragon and lion dance performances to bring in the new year. But here in Champaign-Urbana, you can expect many Chinese, Vietnamese, and Korean restaurants to be very busy on the holiday.”

Lee advises everyone to celebrate the Lunar New Year by enjoying a good meal with friends and family and learning more about the holiday that has been celebrated for over 3,000 years.