This year’s Chinese or Lunar New Year falls on Saturday 28 January. It commences the Year of the Rooster, which according to my Chinese wall calendar, this zodiac sign symbolises promptness, fidelity and pride.
Year after year, more people seem to be aware of Chinese New Year in the UK, which is visible not only in London China Town notable for its annual Parade, but also at mainstream supermarkets featuring special ingredients to help create Chinese dishes and flavours. How do the Chinese people prepare for and celebrate the New Year?
As the Cantonese saying goes: 年廿八，洗邋遢。[On the] 28th night of the [last month of] year, [we] wash away all dirt. The ante-penultimate day of the year – the last month only consists of 30 days – is reserved to dust, wash and clean up the household, in order to prepare the new year afresh.
A make-over, inside out
The Chinese are very superstitious when it comes to folk traditions and it is considered bad luck for someone to do anything ‘unsettling’ in the first month in the New Year. This ranges from having their hair cut, moving house or even getting married! It is also common practice to get new under- and outer-wear for the New Year.
All things red, gold and fresh
Red has long been a colour associated with Chinese New Year as it was believed to be the colour which was used to scare off a monster called ‘Nian’ (with the same pronunciation as ‘Year’ in Chinese) in ancient times. Red has been used to signify luck and fortune. People may choose to wear red items, and also adorn their homes with decorations of red – and gold, as well as fresh flowers to mark the beginning of the spring season.
Eating is the pinnacle of Chinese New Year celebrations. This begins on the last day of the Year, when families gather together to ’round up’ the previous year and celebrate unity and harmony with the extended family. Sometimes this may start a few days early, to allow the nuclear family to celebrate with both sets of grandparents, especially to accommodate people’s competing schedules. Some work places also have similar arrangements for their staff. This would signify the start of many eating episodes. What is typically eaten include rice balls ‘湯丸’ (tang yuan, whilst yuan also carries the same meaning as unity ‘團圓’). The same is done on the 15th day of the New Year, which is also dubbed as Chinese Valentine’s Day ‘元宵’ (yuan xiao).
For the New Year, the Chinese eat specific dishes for meanings to bring forth good health, luck, fortune, prosperity… and the list continues. When it comes to traditions, the Chinese using hynonyms to transfer the meaning of one word to another. For example, to celebrate the New Year, the Chinese eat and display all sorts of ‘cakes’ ‘糕’ (gao) as it carries the meaning of achieving high ‘高’ (gao). The texture of these ‘cakes’ are also quite stretchy, and symbolises the ‘bonds’ between family members. Fish ‘魚’ (yue) is eaten for a plentiful New Year with lots of leftovers ‘餘’ (yue) to be enjoyed, whilst vegetables ‘菜’ (cai) bring forth fortune ‘財’ (cai). Clementines are taken for their bright colour and symbolise nuggets of gold and sweets are offered in special plates to guests as a welcoming treat for a sweet start to the New Year. This may also include melon seeds ‘瓜子’ (gwa zhi).
Gifting and Red packets
Chinese New Year is a largely social event and gifting remains a crucial part of this. The Chinese have (yet another) saying, ‘禮尚往來’ (li shang wang lai) which means, gifting keeps the social circle going. On the first day of the New Year, younger members of the family would visit their elders, bearing sweet gifts, typically chocolate or biscuits. When people meet, they would greet each other with special wishes, such as ‘恭喜發財’ (gong xi fa cai – lots of good fortune), or ‘身體健康’ (xin tai jiang kang – good health) This in return is reciprocated with red packets with money. Those who are / have been married are also expected to give red packets to younger siblings, cousins, nieces, nephews who are still single to children of friends and acquaintances. The amount of money typically given in the red packets is the lowest denomination of a note, but really depends on how close they are, and how wealthy and generous one is, in other words can be a minefield!