02/03/2011 11:27 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Welcome to the Year of the Rabbit

Today, February 3, 2011, marks the beginning of the Chinese New Year, also known to many Chinese as the Lunar New Year or the Spring Festival. The festival begins on the first day of the first month of the lunar calendar, so the exact date on the Gregorian calendar varies each year, usually between January 21 and February 19. It is widely celebrated across China and in Chinese communities around the world over a period between one day and three weeks.

According to the Chinese zodiac, 2011 is the Year of the Rabbit, following 2010's Year of the Tiger. Each year corresponds to one of twelve animals that cycle every twelve years. The previous Year of the Rabbit was in 1999, while the next Rabbit Year occurs in 2023. One legend tells how Buddha invited all animals to a gathering and the first twelve animals to arrive were honored with a zodiac year.

The Chinese New Year Festival is a time for family and friends to pay respects to gods, spirits, and ancestors, as well as wish each other good fortune in the upcoming year. A common greeting is "Gong Xi Fa Cai" in Mandarin Chinese or "Kung Hei Fat Choy" in Cantonese, which can be literally translated to "congratulations, get rich!" In China, where the festival is observed as a weeklong national holiday, hundreds of millions of Chinese head home in what has been called the world's largest annual human migration.

Symbolic traditions are an important part of the Chinese New Year celebrations. Many Chinese fully clean their homes ahead of the New Year, with the belief of sweeping away bad luck and starting anew. However, cleaning during the first few days of the New Year is avoided, since it might result in sweeping away good luck.

Red is considered a lucky color, so homes and businesses are often decorated in red. Similarly, red clothing is worn. Red envelopes filled with money, called hong bao in Mandarin and lai see in Cantonese, are traditionally given as gifts from married to unmarried people, particularly to children. For Chinese families who might not celebrate holidays such as Christmas or Hanukkah, the Chinese New Year represents the principal time of gift-giving to children and grandchildren.

According to Chinese tradition, debts should be paid before the New Year begins. Otherwise, it is believed that if one begins the New Year in debt, such will continue for the rest of the year.

To recap, start the New Year wearing red, decorating in red, but not with your finances in the red!

Traditional foods are eaten during the Lunar New Year festival. These foods may differ across the different regions of China, but they all share common symbolism for good luck and prosperity. In Southern China, a popular New Year dessert is nian gao, which is a steamed, sweet glutinous rice pudding. Turnip cakes and taro root cakes are savory offerings with auspicious meanings. In Northern China, homemade meat-filled dumplings called jiao zi are popular for the festival. These can be boiled or pan-fried, with the latter commonly known in America as potstickers. Guests will often be offered dried fruits or seeds that have lucky meanings. One such item is dried kumquats, because the first character of the fruit's Chinese name means "gold," which therefore symbolizes prosperity. A celebratory dinner will often include a whole fish, because the Chinese word for "fish" sounds like the word for "abundance."

Chinese communities around the world host festivities to celebrate the New Year. A popular attraction is the lion dance, which features two dancers mimicking a lion's movements. The lion symbolically chases away evil spirits and brings good luck and fortune. Festival parades and gatherings typically conclude with a barrage of firecrackers to scare off evil and promote good tidings for the New Year.

Happy Year of the Rabbit! Best wishes to you and your loved ones. Congratulations, get rich!