Six Things You Should Know about Chinese New Year

As I child, I would talk about the lunar new year instead of Chinese New Year.  My father would correct me.  “You mean Chinese New Year”.  He corrected me not because he wasn’t aware the festivities were shared with many Eastern Asian cultures, but that the way our family celebrated the new year was particular to the Chinese culture and, sometimes, quite different from that of our neighbors: the South Koreans, Japanese, Malaysians, Vietnamese and other Southeast Asian folks.  Every day, the lunar new year falls on a different day so, even as an adult, I never know exactly which day it falls on (until Google reminds me).  Sometimes it comes at the end of January, other years it would be mid to late February.  The reason is that the lunar calendar follows the cycles of moon, obviously, rather than the sun as in the Gregorian system.  One way I explained the lunar new year to my multi-cultured classmates was that the importance of this celebration was equivalent to Christmas in Western cultures.  Hence, what are several rituals that you should know about the holiday?

On New Year we wear red.  Red is the color of fortune and the folly of not wearing red on the first few days of new year might mean a year’s worth of trials and tribulations.  Superstitious, I know! But the tradition is significant and very much honored.



Red not white envelopes.  You might be wondering why these miniature envelopes suddenly come into view at major Canadian banks or are exchanged during festivities.  Red envelopes, also known as “lai see” in Cantonese or “hong bao” in Mandarin, are monetary gifts traditionally gifted from older to younger generations.  The sum of money usually ends in an even number as this is considered to be prime fortune.  If you’re an expert on Chinese culture, you might even be aware that certain numbers carry underlying meanings.  For example, the number eight rhymes with the word prosperity in Chinese and is a common value gifted.  The number six rhymes with smooth and is a value given to promote smooth sailing in the gift-receiver’s career, academic endeavors, and life aspirations

Year of the Dog.  You might also be aware that each year correlates with each of the twelve animals in the Chinese zodiac.  If the zodiac animal corresponds to your birth year, then an old saying goes that you should always wear red underwear.  Red-colored underwear will help ward off unlucky spirits.  Moreover, each zodiac year presents its own set of fortunes and misfortunes.  For example, the dog symbolizes loyalty in one’s career and relationships, but individuals born in this zodiac year should remain flexible and open to new opportunities.

Eating rice cake.  The Chinese love puns.  In fact, the word used for rice cake is a play on words for “higher each year”.  The metaphor speaks to a desire for betterment in each new year.  Rice cakes can be store-bought or even homemade.  You might be wondering, “What is a rice cake?”  Don’t be deceived by the word cake, because this dish could be prepared as a dessert or as a savory entree.  The rice cake tastes gelatinous and chewy, quite unlike any other cakes you’ve had!

I’ll be home for the New Year.  Similar to Christmas, not reuniting with family for the New Year induces a significant deal of guilt in the individual.  Having visited my extended family in Shanghai during the festivities, I noticed a handful of commercials that reminded individuals to visit their loved ones.  Hence, each year, in the weeks leading up to Chinese New Year, a great migration begins consisting of hundreds of millions of people rushing home.  This picture was taken a few days before Chinese New Year last year at one train station.

Chinese door banners.  The Chinese refer to these as red couplets given that they are always attached in pairs.  The tradition of these couplets originated in the Five Dynasties in 900 A.D.  The Spring couplet is written on red paper with black calligraphy ink.  Typically, a professional calligrapher is invited to express their good wishes.  Many excellent couplets are passed down from generation to generation.

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