Today marks the last day of the Year of the Pig in the Lunar Year calendar, one of the busiest in China and many parts of East Asia. Many people would travel to join families and mark the end of the year, and celebrate with a big meal.
Chinese culture is marked by regional differences which are shown in the wide variety of food eaten – but all imbrued with symbolic meanings. In Southern China where my grandparents are from, we would always have a fish dish – as ‘yue’ shares the same tone as ‘having leftovers’ which is translated to forthcoming abundance and prosperity.
In China, the New Year is widely known as ‘Spring Festival’ as the first day of the new year also marks the beginning of spring and the end of the winter. Although most of China now uses the Gregorian (Western) calendar, only back in my grandparents’ generation (born around a century ago), they would record their birthdays according to the Lunar Calendar. It remains as an integral part of Chinese society as it depicts when Chinese festivals happen and also auspicious days for key events.
To prepare for Chinese New Year, many families decorate their homes with seasonal flowers, with cherry blossoms, chrysanthemum and orchid being the most popular kinds. They also enlist the elders or more commonly young people to write Chinese wishes in pairs (couplets) on their front doors and windows to welcome good luck in the forthcoming year.
Contrary to what many people think, the first day of the New Year is not a day of feasting. Growing up we would meet and greet the rest of the family at my grandparents’ and have a vegetarian meal of cabbage, sweetcorn, mushrooms cooked in a fermented bean curd sauce.
But there would always be a host of other welcome ‘snacks’ including sugared lotus root and seeds, coconut pieces, sesame puffs, chocolate and sweets. These all have different meanings, but overall leads to sweetness and happiness for the new year. Children would be given red packets with money (not to open until the fifteenth day). We would then spend the day playing, whilst grown-ups would hang around nibbling on melon seeds (for good luck!). Now that my grandparents have passed, and the majority of our generation have their own nuclear families scattered around the world, it is virtually impossible to organise events as such.
Tomorrow begins the Year of the Rat and is the start of a new cycle in the Chinese 12-animal zodiac sign. Being versed in the order of these zodiac signs is also an indirect way to ask for people’s age. My grandfather and I were both born in the Year of the Rat – 72 years apart. Celebrating your own zodiac year is always quite special. Last time we celebrated the Year of Rat, I was studying in Edinburgh – now 12 years on and a mother of two, it does make me think how best to educate my children on these ‘traditions’.
It sometimes feel quite an effort especially we no longer have big families as such, not to mention when we live overseas. For as long as Audrey was in nursery school in London, every year I would pop into her class to do a short story about Chinese New Year. I had also hosted a dumpling making class at the RHACC. However, what constitutes as traditional foods is quite different to everyone. Dumplings is actually an interesting one – I did not grow up eating them – it is a northern Chinese food which have become ubiquitous with an overseas Chinese identity. Food is always very symbolic when you are away from your ‘homeland’ to mark an important festival such as Chinese New Year. It remains as one those very tangible items that reminds you of where you come from, and how we wish to exert our cultural identity.