When I was little, I always celebrated the new year twice.
For a while, I didn’t understand why. But I knew only one of the celebrations involved receiving red envelopes filled with money from my mom. So, clearly I had a favorite.
As I grew older, I learned more about the significance of Chinese New Year, including why I got red envelopes filled with money, what the Chinese zodiac animals represent and the symbolism of the food. And at the center of it was spending time with my family.
“It’s linked with the lunar calendar, which is a different way of counting time and also marking the threshold of seasonal changes,” said Yiju Huang, assistant professor of Chinese and comparative literature at Fordham University in New York. “It’s very similar to the New Year on Jan. 1 … but it’s also called the Spring Festival, which marks the transition from barren coldness to when everything is thriving.”
A holiday of symbolism
Chinese New Year is one of several lunar new years celebrated in Asia. The date is determined by the first day of the Chinese lunar calendar and lands between mid-January to mid-February. This year, it fell on Tuesday.
In China, the holiday is a very big deal, starting with the New Year’s Eve reunion dinner and then 15 days of activities. Many rituals are performed to signify a new start.
My mom told me that back in Taiwan, my grandmother would have her and her siblings start cleaning the house a week early. An organization similar to a homeowner association would come by to inspect the homes, and if it wasn’t clean enough, a sign would be posted out front. My mom’s childhood home was always perfect.
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“You sweep out all of the dirt and bad luck and bad things from the previous year to welcome the new year,” said Jan Stuart, curator of Chinese art at the at the Freer|Sackler, the Smithsonian’s museums of Asian art in Washington, D.C.
In Chinese culture, the color red is used for joyous and celebratory events, Stuart said. Chinese New Year is no exception, with ubiquitous red lanterns, banners, signs and other decorations. Everyone wears new clothing with at least one thing that’s red.
Stuart said firecrackers are set off to ward off evil spirits, and the symbol of the circle is used frequently, which is why the final day of the holiday is on the night of a full moon.
“It goes full circle,” Stuart said. “A circle is a sign of completeness and perfection.”
In China, certain rituals are performed throughout the 15 days of the holiday, differing based on where you live and your belief system. Many of these are ancient traditions, such as throwing out trash, burning incense or eating certain foods to honor specific gods.
It’s a national holiday, and many people receive multiple days off as most businesses are closed, similar to Christmas in the west. There are mass migrations to return home to see family throughout the country for Chinese New Year. Up until Chinese New Year’s Eve, everyone is busy cleaning, decorating and preparing for guests.
On the eve, families gather for a big reunion dinner. Chinese New Year’s day is the big celebration with firecrackers and tables filled with foods. The next several days are spent visiting with relatives and friends nearby. By the end of the first week, many residents begin returning to work.
The final days are spent preparing for the Lantern Festival, which falls on the 15th day of the new year. Glowing lanterns illuminate the night sky, and skilled performers wear elaborate lion and dragon costumes to perform exciting dances.
In the USA, some cities host big festivals, parades and celebrations on or near Chinese New Year. One of the most notable is the San Francisco Chinese New Year Parade, which takes place in Chinatown and features floats and costumes, firecrackers and red lanterns strung across streets. Chinese restaurants will feature special menus serving traditional holiday dishes. In Indianapolis, the Indianapolis Chinese Community Center Inc. hosts a Chinese New Year Gala.
A table filled with special foods
Huang likens Chinese New Year to Christmas or Thanksgiving. Family is incredibly important to Chinese culture, so relatives from many generations gather to ring in the new year together and eat big meals with very specific dishes.
My family and I would have hot pot on Chinese New Year’s Eve. We would fire up the propane-powered pot that sat at the center of the dining table. We were each armed with a wire ladle that we used to dunk paper-thin raw meats and other proteins, including fish and tofu, vegetables and noodles in the boiling soup.
My mom was in charge, refilling the soup and making sure we cooked things at the right time. My dad kept track of the propane tanks. And my sister and I always fought for the last of the noodles. We talked, laughed and shared memories of the previous year.
On the night of Chinese New Year, we ate another big meal, and steamed whole fish was front and center. Tables at Chinese New Year celebrations are filled with lucky foods, each representing something you hope for in the new year: whole fish and sticky rice cake for prosperity, noodles for long life, dumplings for good fortune, chicken for family togetherness, and “golden” citrus fruits that represent wealth.
There’s also word play involved in the dishes. The word for fish in Chinese is pronounced the same as the word for “extra” or “surplus,” so eating fish will help bring abundance for the new year. The words for sticky cake sound just like the words for “high year,” which symbolizes a higher income and success.
What is your animal sign?
Another important aspect of Chinese New Year is the Chinese zodiac. A person’s Chinese zodiac sign is determined by their birth year. It features 12 animals: rat, ox, rabbit, tiger, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and pig.
Like the Western horoscope, each pairing features specific personality traits and romantic compatibility with other signs. Charts to determine what animal sign you are can be found online.
2019 is the Year of the Pig. Other years ruled by the pig include 1935, 1947, 1959, 1971, 1983, 1995 and 2007. People born in the year of the pig are enthusiastic, generous and compassionate. They are most compatible with a goat, tiger and rabbit, and least with a monkey or snake.
I learned at an early age that I am a rat, which I was not too thrilled about. But then I found out that the rat was the first of all zodiac animals, and it is clever, optimistic and likable.
Looking forward to red envelopes
My favorite part of Chinese New Year growing up was receiving red envelopes. Elders give red envelopes filled with cash to the younger generation. On Chinese New Year’s Eve, my sister and I gleefully accepted red envelopes with crisp new dollar bills from my mom and grandmother.
“Abundance is associated with the idea of redness,” Huang said. “And the amount of money doesn’t have to be a lot. It’s such a tremendous joy for children, and they use the money to buy candies because they don’t indulge in them usually.”
We put them under our pillows before we went to bed, but Grandmother would take them the next day so we wouldn’t foolishly spend the money. She insisted we save it. Stuart said this tradition is particularly fitting as Chinese culture for a long time has been a “gift-giving society.”
Continuing the tradition
In my mid-20s, I started hosting a Chinese New Year dinner with friends in Phoenix. I stocked up on ingredients, red lanterns and colorful signs at the Asian grocery store. The first year, I attempted to make six dishes by myself for about 10 friends. It was stressful, and I never got a chance to sit down and talk.
The next year, I enlisted help. I gave my friends tasks, teaching them how to fold and crimp dumplings, and how to prep spring roll wrappers to fill and wrap. It allowed me to work on the stove. For years, I hosted dinners at my place or went to a local Chinese restaurant with friends. While I wasn’t with my actual family, they definitely came close.
This year I’m in a new city, and I’ll probably just have a quiet Chinese dinner at home with my boyfriend. But even as an adult, I can look forward to one thing: a red envelope in the mail from my mom.
Kellie Hwang is a reporter at IndyStar. She has made Chinese dumplings at home many times, but only once with homemade wrappers, which will probably be the one and only time. You can follow her on Twitter: @KellieHwang. This column first appeared in The Indianapolis Star.