Chinese New Year, referred to in Mandarin as “Chun Jie” (transliterated as “Spring Festival”), is like any other holiday we celebrate in the West with an overarching set of traditions and practices that are recognizable to any ethnic Chinese all over the world.
A caveat before we continue: Everything I speak from is of personal experience in how I’ve experienced the Spring Festival (based on my childhood growing up in Vancouver and time overseas in China and Taiwan). To the Chinese, the Spring Festival is Christmas, New Year’s, and Thanksgiving all wrapped up in one – it’s the ultimate holiday.
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So, what to do?
Like pretty much every holiday ever celebrated, activities are centered around the family, both nuclear and extended.
Members will trek from all over to come home to be with loved ones. In China, the Spring Festival celebration marks the largest annual mass migration of humans anywhere in the world. Here are some things we do:
Eat with Family
Eat with family at home or in a restaurant, sometimes multiple times. Food is symbolic and represents the aspirations and history of China.
What to eat (to name just a few):
- Any manner of pork, fish, and chicken, and preferably all at the same time. To have these on the dinner table represents wealth and bounty, something every family hopes to have for their clan.
- Noodles are eaten to represent a long, healthy life.
- Dumplings are representative of the imperial gold bullion of the emperor and to welcome the coming of the God of Wealth to one’s household.
- Rice/Daikon Radish Cakes are most popular in eastern China. This food item’s name is a homophone for the term “a grand year,” so duh, we eat ‘em! Chewy, comforting, and delicious. There are also savory and sweet versions.
- Fat Choy (AKA dried oysters stewed with black moss fungus and shiitake mushrooms) is a staple at the Cantonese New Year’s dinner table. Its name in Chinese sounds similar to the “Fat Choy” or “Gong Hay Fat Choy” (meaning to “get rich” or “make a fortune”). The dish is symbolic of this and ain’t cheap either.
Red Envelopes of cash money — “hong bao” if you’re a Mandarin speaker, “lai see” if you’re Cantonese, but the custom around it remains the same. Given by elders to unmarried juniors, it’s a faux pas to give them to those senior to you or other couples.
If you’re young and don’t have a boo thang, it’s pretty lit. Let the money roll in, but you got to do it right. Two hands when receiving, facing the giver. Always stand, even if they are sitting when it is given to you. Slight bow in deference for their generosity and seniority. Don’t put it in your back pocket (sitting on it can be deemed as rude) or open it in front of them.
Put it under your pillow for the night for extra luck. Let it rain, son.
Blowing sh** up, yo! They’re set off in some parts of the world to get the adrenaline going and scare away bad spirits that would otherwise compromise the New Year’s coming good fortune.
Lion or Dragon Dance
Lion or Dragon Dances are often performed by local neighborhood kung fu teams, their dance movements and acrobatics are rooted in basic gong fu technique. Lion Dances are busted out whenever there is something to celebrate in Chinese culture, be it the opening of a new business or any other festivals/celebrations.
However, when the Dragon comes, it is for the New Year. It will most likely give you goosebumps watching it.
Go pay respects to those who didn’t make it to see the next year. This involves the lighting of incense, prayers, going to temple or churches, and visiting the graves of your descendants. Sobering but very central to this festival. Family first.
Hope this helps. The main point of the Spring Festival is being with family, wishing for the best, and being grateful for what you got.
May all your wishes be fulfilled (萬事如意) in this New Year.