Almost everyone, whether you’re Chinese or not, associates Chinese New Year with red envelopes. To be fair, getting copious amounts of money in the name of tradition is pretty awesome. But there is more to this celebration and a lot of us forget that it’s not just about the dollar bills.
My parents never stopped to explain the whole concept of why we do what we do. So I learned by doing and by asking questions throughout the years. Even with 20 years worth of questions, I still haven’t pieced it together. I figured it’s about time that I utilized the almighty Google and do some research on Chinese New Year customs. Keep in mind that Chinese people tend to be superstitious (at least my family and my relatives are). As a result, some of our rituals are based on superstitions that were passed down from many, many generations ago. Some of the practices that I observed as a kid definitely makes me laugh now that I’m an adult. But I’m actually more curious than ever about our traditions . I want to learn how and why these New Year rituals and rules came to be.
Uh… what’s Chinese New Year anyway?
Traditionally, the holiday is celebrated as a Spring Festival and it’s the most important of the traditional Chinese holidays. Chinese New Year follows a lunisolar calendar and it’s celebrated on the first day of the first month in the Chinese calendar – the day of the second new moon after the winter solstice. The festival ends on 15th day of the first month, also known as the Lantern Festival. This year, Chinese New Year started on February 18th and will end on March 5th.
Truthfully, I know nothing about the Chinese calendar. I only knew about this year’s dates because of my parents. The coolest aspect of the Chinese calendar is that each year corresponds to one of 12 different zodiac signs and animals. It just so happens that 2015 is my year… meaning it’s the year of the 羊. Since the Chinese character 羊 can mean both goat and sheep, I wrote it in Chinese so nothing gets lost in translation.
What are you supposed to do?
The New Year’s Eve dinner should be a feast with all your family members. My family is from South China so we like to eat 年糕 (New Year cake made of glutinous rice flour) because its pronunciation is a homophone. 年糕 sounds like 年高, meaning “higher and higher every year”. This year we had a fish that was served whole, which represents togetherness. We also had a dish composed of abalone for good fortune and mushrooms for longevity.
Everybody travels back home to visit their families, relatives, and friends to 拜年 (pay new year visits). You usually go to people’s houses bearing gifts such as: sweets, cookies, oranges and tangerines, which symbolize prosperity. Kids are given 利是 (red envelopes) as New Year gifts . The money is believed to bring good luck and ward off monsters. The money is packaged in small red envelopes because the color red symbolizes vitality, happiness, and good luck in Chinese culture. 利是 are given from married couples and elderly generations to unmarried younger generations. It’s not the money inside that makes red envelopes valuable; the importance of this tradition lies in the red color, which is loaded with cultural meaning. It’s also impolite to open the 利是 in front of those who gave it. My mom actually made me keep my loot of 利是 underneath my pillow until after the festival was over.
Stuff I was told to do by my parents…
My family isn’t really strict about New Years and we don’t do as much as we used to. But I thought these are funny rituals and I should share nonetheless.
During Chinese New Year, we shouldn’t sweep the house – especially during the first three days. Otherwise impending good luck would be swept away.
Buy new clothes (my mom likes to buy us red underwear!) in red and wear them for the first time in the early hours of the new year. The color red will scare Nian away and wearing new clothes represents a new start.
Traditionally, washing your hair during the first three days of the New Year is bad luck because your good fortune would be washed away. My mom tells me not to wash my hair on New Year’s Eve and that’s it.
We may celebrate Chinese New Year in slightly different ways, but why we celebrate is almost all the same. We just want our families and friends to be healthy and experience good luck during the new year. It’s this hope that good things will happen that makes Chinese New Year such a special holiday.