What comes to mind when you think of Chinese New Year? Great festivals? Lanterns floating up into the night sky? Parades with colorful dragons dancing down the street? That’s what I always thought. What it is really all about and how it is commonly celebrated might surprise you.
Recently, we had the opportunity to host two beautiful girls from Taiwan in our home. Here is how Chih-Ling (Linda) and Ming-Hsiuan (Tracy) describe a typical Chinese New Year.
It’s All About Family
Chinese New Year traditions are ancient, and they are all about family. The entire family gathers, young and old, aunts, uncles, cousins, children, parents, and grandparents. Often traveling long distances, everyone returns home for the New Year celebration. It’s a huge family reunion.
The Chinese New Year “reunion” lasts for at least five days. Before the actual celebration even begins, the house gets a good cleaning to “wash away” any bad luck from the past year that might be lingering. It also adds to the idea of getting a fresh start in the new year. For that same reason, new clothes are bought for the celebration. Next, the whole family prepares loads of traditional foods. It’s a great time to be all together. Once all the food is ready, the New Year’s Eve feast begins.
Most of the dishes the family enjoys at dinner have some sort of symbolism, and many of those came about by the way the word sounds in the Chinese language. For example, fish sounds like “surplus.” When they eat the fish, they say “nian nian you yu” which means “to have surplus (abundance) in the new year,” Tracy explained. She also said that having the head and tail of the fish symbolizes a good beginning and a good ending for the coming year.
In Chinese, chicken sounds like “family,” so it goes without saying that chicken is on the reunion dinner menu. Families also eat fruits because their names also have symbolism—apple is for “safety;” orange is for “luck;” and pineapple is “very good luck.” Dumplings represent “wealth” due to their shape’s close resemblance to the gold ingots that were a form of currency in ancient China. “The more dumplings you eat, the more money you’ll earn,” Tracy said. “And candy is eaten by the individual that wants to be sweet,” added Linda with a smile.
My favorite dish that Linda described is “Budda Jumps Over the Wall” or “Buddha’s Temptation.” Almost every Chinese celebration includes this dish. It is a seafood soup, or stew, of sorts made up of scallops and abalone, chestnuts and bamboo sprouts, dried mushrooms and dried shrimp, as well as a few other ingredients. The ingredients are expensive, and it is complicated to make. It’s always served in an earthen pot, and because of its very rich flavor, it symbolizes “riches.”
After dinner the family elders distribute red packets, or envelopes, to everyone; red is associated with wealth and good fortune. Inside the envelopes are individual “wishes” and “blessings” for fortune and safety in the coming year. The packets often contain gifts of money.
Everyone stays up late on New Year’s Eve including the young children and grandparents. It’s a special time for them. They get to spend quality time together, share stories, and hand down traditions. The ancients wish the young ones “longevity.” At midnight, fireworks light the sky to “scare away bad luck.”
Everyone spends New Years Day feasting (again), visiting friends, or going to temples to burn incense and pray for blessings and good luck in the year ahead. The next day, a married woman will go to her parent’s house to visit. Business resumes (people go back to work and school) on the fifth day of the year.