Growing up, my parents had always put in extra effort preparing for Chinese New Year to ensure my sister and I still had the full cultural experience despite living in Canada. My fondest childhood memories are gathering with our extended family for large delicious feasts, playing games with my cousins on New Year’s eve and opening the red pockets with my sister.
Since Chinese people are quite superstitious, Chinese New Year is arguably the most important holiday as they believe it sets the tone in how the rest of your year will turn out. Though I won’t list out all the traditions/activities (there are a lot!), here are a few fun ones that my family still practices to this day:
Food - must-eats during Chinese New Year usually revolves around what sounds positive/lucky phonetically. For example, the pronunciation of Fish in both Mandarin and Cantonese sound like the last word in the phrase 年年有餘 which means to have excess/surplus (usually referring to money and food) every year. Another common dish is steamed rice cakes referring to 步步高升, to rise higher with every step (usually tied to work promotions or school grades).. At our dinner table, you would typically find all these yummy dishes and a glutinous rice ball dessert (it’s almost like a mochi) called Tang Yuan (湯圓) which symbolizes ‘togetherness’ with your family.
Greetings - the most popular one you’ll come across is 恭喜發財 which means wishing you prosperity. This also ties into the tradition of gifting money - by giving one money to start the new year, you’re hoping the person will receive even more from here on out or just good luck in general. Once you’re married, you automatically go from being the receiver of money to the giver. Other common greetings include 心想事成 meaning may your heart’s desires come true; and 身體健康 meaning good health. One that my parents always wished upon me was 學業進步 which means may you improve in your academic studies!
Decor - when it comes to decorations, the key is to go with the color red (purple or gold could work too) and avoid any black or white. The most common Chinese New Year decoration is a 揮春 (pronounced: Fai Chun) which is a rectangular or square piece of red paper with greetings written in black or gold. Chinese people would typically tape them up by their doorway or along the walls of the living room or bedroom. In addition to the store-bought decorations, I also enjoyed making my own Fai Chuns! Simply cut a piece of 8x11 red construction paper in half lengthwise and use a black sharpie to write out a Chinese greeting either vertically (one word stacked on top of the other) or horizontally (from left to right). Tip: Consider adding some gold glitter or stickers to make it even more festive.
Customs: the Dos - my parents would generally prepare for Chinese New Year about one week ahead, starting with buying decorations and food followed by a deep clean of our home. On the eve, we would gather with our extended families for a large feast to end the current year and welcome the new year with lots of lucky dishes. My sister and I also received a lot of red envelopes (filled with money) from our older and married relatives. New Year’s day will then be filled with lucky activities like wearing new clothes with bright colours and going around to greet others with lucky phrases..
Customs: the Don’ts - when it comes to the don’ts for Chinese New Year, the list is usually based around what sounds negative phonetically. To make sure we start off the new year right, my mom was really strict with a few things including: mentioning anything unlucky (e.g. any number with 4, death, etc.); washing our hair/clothes or sweeping the floor (both means to get rid of wealth and luck); and using anything sharp (particularly scissors and needles). Anytime my sister and I said anything unlucky, my mom would make us eat something sweet to counter the bad luck!
Although my sister and I enjoyed the festivities, we never truly appreciated the amount of work that went into keeping these traditions going. Only as an adult did I start to realize that traditions can be easily forgotten if we don’t continue to practice and carry them through the generations. Hopefully you enjoyed reading about how my family celebrated Chinese New Year and may it inspire you to share the joy with your family and friends!
Through this article, our insiders, QN wanted to share her family story and celebrate her culture with all of us.
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