One of the most important occasions on the Chinese calendar, the Chinese New Year is celebrated with the grandeur of lion dances, fireworks, and dragon parades. But behind the brilliant colors and the incessant crackle of firecrackers scaring away evil spirits, the Chinese New Year is primarily a time for family gatherings, cultural tradition, and new beginnings.
Though we are now into the month of February, the Chinese New Year is far from over. This year, the fifteen-day celebration began with the new moon on January 22 and will continue to the fifth of February. In the United States, where many of the larger celebrations can only take place on the weekends, celebration of Chinese New Year lasts up to two weeks, ending this year on Sunday, February 8 with a traditional Lantern Festival.
New Year Preparations
In China, the New Year arrives during the spring season, when the cycle of planting and harvesting has begun. This falls in line with the spirit of new beginnings. A popular expression used during this time is “sweep out the old and bring in the new.” Sweeping out the old and bringing in the new takes place on many levels. In the home, one must literally sweep every corner of the house for the annual “sweeping of the grounds.” The entire home is thoroughly cleaned to wipe away stains from the previous year and welcome in the new. At this time, home improvements are made, possibly with a new layer of paint or the mending of a neglected hinge.
Making a new start also involves personal appearance. Families purchase new clothing and visit the barber for a haircut. New hairstyles are explored. Children are encouraged to catch up on all their homework before the New Year begins, so they can start again with a clean slate. Bad words are avoided; uttering bad words during the New Year celebration is said to bring bad luck. It is also important that any debts owed, including household bills, are paid off in full.
The Kitchen God plays a special role in the Chinese New Year preparations. Having watched the family all year, the Kitchen God travels back to heaven on the first day of the New Year to give the Jade Emperor a thorough account of everything he has seen. This account will affect the fate of the family for the entire year. In order to receive a favorable account, the family works especially hard to clean their home and offers the Kitchen God a platter of delicious food and honey before his departure.
Decorating for the New Year
Traditional décor for the Chinese New Year celebration plays a significant role in lifting spirits, providing beautiful ambiance befitting the festivities, and demonstrating the rich cultural traditions passed on from ancient China. The following are well-known symbols of New Year celebration:
Spring couplets: These short poems are written in classic Chinese script. They are inscribed in black ink upon red scrolls of paper that hang vertically from walls in homes or stores. These banners ring out positive messages for the New Year, sending out wishes for prosperity, happiness, and good fortune.
Lai-See, or Hong-Bao: These little red envelopes are popular and well-liked. They are filled with varying amounts of money and are traditionally given to younger children by relatives or family friends. Lai-see envelopes are passed out to children for the New Year, so that they will prosper. Lai-see envelopes are also given out during other occasions, such as weddings, birthdays, or graduations. Family members make several rounds of visits to one another during the New Year, and lai-see envelopes are presented on these occasions.
Tray of togetherness: Chinese New Year is an occasion for family unity and appreciation. Families celebrate the New Year together and visit one another’s homes frequently, sharing food, laughter, and company. Perhaps no other time of the year presents as joyful an occasion for families to be together. The tray of togetherness, also called chuen-hop, is filled with Chinese delicacies, such as sweets and dried fruits. It is always kept full to welcome family members and other guests to the home.
Flowers: Flowers represent the rebirth of springtime, new beginnings, and fruitfulness. Abundant displays of flowers in the home and elsewhere are important and beautiful visions of New Year décor. It is believed to be very good luck if a flower blooms in the home on New Year’s Day. This promises happiness and prosperity in the home for the coming year. Plum blossoms bloom during this time of the year, and are popular plants for the occasion. Other popular flowers are the water narcissus or lily, the azalea, and the peony.
Oranges and tangerines: Oranges and tangerines are offered at the homes one visits during the New Year, along with lai-see envelopes. They are symbols of good luck, wealth, or happiness. In storefronts, a display of oranges and tangerines is often visible, bringing in good luck and prosperity.
Chinese New Year Foods
Families gather for huge feasts during Chinese New Year. The most important is the communal feast that takes place on the evening before the first day of the New Year. At this time, families eat together, setting a place for their departed ancestors at the table to acknowledge and honor the generations that preceded them.
Fish, which symbolizes bounty, is presented whole in vast quantities. Other traditional foods include spring rolls and steamed clams, dumplings, noodles which symbolize longevity, vegetarian jai, or zong zi (glutinous rice wrapped in green reed leaves). The following Lantern Festival recipe is an excerpt from Moonbeams, Dumplings, and Dragon Boats, by Simonds, Swartz, and the Children’s Museum, Boston.
Sweet Rice Balls
1 cup sweet rice flour
1 tablespoon safflower or corn oil
½ cup boiling water
4 cups water
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon almond extract
1. Put the sweet flour into a large mixing bowl. Mix together the oil and boiling water, and slowly add to the rice flour, stirring with a wooden spoon. Mix to a rough dough and let cool. Place the cooled dough on a clean surface and knead lightly until smooth.
2. With your hands roll the dough into a long snake and cut it into teaspoon-sized pieces. (There should be about forty).
3. Roll each piece into a ball and place on a tray that has been lightly dusted with sweet rice flour.
4. To make the soup, bring the water and sugar to a boil in a large pot. Lower the heat and cook for a few minutes to fully dissolve the sugar. Add the rice balls and bring to a boil again. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for eight to ten minutes, or until the balls float to the surface. Stir in the almond extract. Remove from the heat, ladle soup and balls into individual soup bowls, and serve. (Visit our Grocery Section to find various Asian ingredients you can add to your New Year feast).
Chinese New Year festivities are preceded and surrounded by the preparations and decorations described above: flowing banners, blooming flowers, family gatherings. When this time of year comes around, stores begin stocking up on Chinese delicacies and products and the feeling of festivity fills the air. In fact, the entire first week of the Chinese New Year is one continuous celebration. In China and in the Chinese communities within the United States, including San Francisco and New York, the first week is a time for merriment and socializing. Street fairs and festivals flood city streets with jugglers, musicians, magicians, calligraphy booths, and the like.
During the second week, events come to a climax with the Lantern Festival, traditionally taking place with the full moon on the fifteenth day of the New Year. On this day, lion dances followed by exploding firecrackers take place in the streets of Chinatown to keep bad spirits away. Often a spectacular dragon, supported by hundreds of people and symbolizing power and good luck, is the highlight of a city parade. Finally, everyone in the family can participate in the breathtaking display of lanterns. Each lantern has a unique shape, and everyone can carry one to usher in the light of the New Year. Many lanterns are handmade with red paper to represent joy. (To learn how to use the colorful paper available at Mrs. Lin’s Kitchen’s Gift Section, read our March 2003 newsletter on the Art of Paper Cutting.
Year of the Monkey
Two thousand and four is the year of the monkey. Monkeys are one of the wittiest and intelligent animals of the Chinese zodiac. Monkeys seek success, take risks, and aren’t afraid to laugh at their failures and try again. The monkey’s sense of humor and wealth of information and talents earn him enormous popularity and influence. (At Mrs. Lin’s Kitchen, our animal chops include the versatile monkey. Visit our Chops Section and make this prominent seal work for you).
The year of the monkey promises an economic turn for the better. If you have plans and ideas you have been afraid to try, now is the time to make them happen. This year, do not be afraid to take risks, for the genius in you is ready to blossom. If you do not succeed in all your endeavors, you will not take failure too seriously. Instead, you will think of it as a way of getting closer to your dreams. Good luck, and happy New Year! Or as the Chinese say, Gung hay fat choy (Kung-his fa-ts’ai)!
If you would like to learn more about the topics mentioned in this newsletter, take a look at our newsletter archives. Previous newsletters cover the mythical dragon and phoenix, Chinese horoscope, dim sum, the art of paper cutting, New Year’s in Asia, and the art of beautiful writing.
OUR 2004 NEWSLETTERS
Holiday Shopping Guide for Men
Holiday Shopping Guide for Women
Flowers in the Sky – Cherry and Plum Blossoms in Asian Culture
Travel to Asia: Southeast Asia II
Travel to Asia: Southeast Asia I
Travel to Asia: Korea
Travel to Asia: Taiwan
Travel to Asia: Japan
Travel to Asia: China, Part II
Travel to Asia: China
1,000 Cranes in Asian Culture and Art
Chinese New Year
Cookware for Your Asian-Style Kitchen
MAY WE SUGGEST: