Depending on where you are, tomorrow, January 28, marks the first day of the Lunar New Year! And according to the Chinese zodiac, this will be the year of the Rooster.
I’m going home to my parents’ tonight for 年夜饭 nianyefan, New Year’s Eve dinner, sometimes known as the Reunion dinner. It’s one of the biggest parts of every Chinese New Year celebration, as it is when the whole family gathers and eats a lot of delicious foods. While talking with my boyfriend about how our families celebrate Chinese New Year, I thought about all the little traditions that make this time of year special. Sometimes, I feel very at odds with my cultural traditions if only because I am unfamiliar with them. When I go back to China, everyone grows up doing these things year after year to the point where it is no longer something that has to be explained. Things are just known among Chinese people. (Thanks in small part to how viral articles can get on WeChat!)
My family isn’t actually very traditional, as far as Chinese families go, so many traditions I have picked up along the way outside of my own home, whether from other people’s families or through reading about celebrations in other homes. So to brief you (and myself!) for the upcoming new year and the year of the rooster, here are just a few ways I am prepping for Chinese New Year:
- 腊八 – While I was in China, we were able to celebrate Laba, which is the 8th day of the last month of the lunar year. You eat laba congee, which is full of lots of goodies, notably cured meats or larou, in Chinese. I believe it has something to do with saving fresh meat for the new year and using up any cured meats before the start of the year? But I actually have no idea.
- Family time – My mom works full time in China and is guaranteed 2 holidays every year to take a week off to come home: National Day (the anniversary of the first day of the People’s Republic of China) and Chinese New Year. I make sure that I am home during this time and have extra hours put in at work so that I can spend more time at home with her, my dad, and my brother, as well as any extended family we may be able to see.
- Cleaning – I first learned this on Mister Rogers, funnily enough, but while you are supposed to do a big clean-up before the new year to cleanse the home of last year’s bad luck and make room for new, good luck, you are not supposed to clean on the day of the new year. If you do, you risk cleaning out all the fresh good luck that just arrived! For this reason, you also can’t sweep outwards or throw anything away.
- Haircuts – My dad clearly didn’t know this when he searched for an open salon in China 2 years ago for me to get a haircut, but you are not supposed to cut your hair on the new year. Many Chinese traditions (and jokes) revolve around wordplay, and the Chinese word for hair sounds like the word for prosperity. Therefore, you don’t want to cut off any of the fresh new year prosperity!
- Red, red, everywhere – If you are unsure what to wear on Chinese New Year, wear red. A lot of it. Fresh duds are a good idea, too, so if you have a new red sweater, there is no better time to bust it out than on the Lunar New Year. Red is a lucky color and you’ll be seeing it everywhere, from the lanterns to the papercut patterns to the red envelopes. Speaking of which…
- Red envelopes! – 红包 hongbao are one of the hallmarks of Chinese New Year for children because they get to collect money from their elders! As an adult with a job, I no longer expect to receive little red envelopes with super crisp $20 bills in them anymore. (The bills are always crisp because people get fresh bills from the bank for this purpose. You’ll see that this freshness is one of the themes of Chinese New Year traditions.) Although people will still give me 红包 despite my age and employment status, I think I may actually be responsible for giving out red envelopes now? Last year, we purchased a pack of envelopes to prepare for stuffing, so if you will be attending festivities with children, I’d prepare by picking up some red envelopes and popping over to the bank to get some crisp bills.
- Foods to include – As with any holiday anywhere, there are a lot of traditional foods that go with Chinese New Year, including:
- Dumplings: Popular in northern China because their shape resembles old Chinese money
- 年糕 Rice cakes: Literally niangao is year cakes, but I like to think it’s another play on words because they are very sticky and the word for sticky in Chinese sounds like the word for year. These are almost always prepared in a savory dish. It has a second wordplay meaning in that the word for cake sounds like the word for increasing, so the phrase sounds like increasing [prosperity] by the year.
- Fish: Another play on words, the Chinese adage 年年有余 means “may there be a surplus every year” and sounds like “may there be fish every year”. I learned last year that my boyfriend’s family will prepare fish but they tend to leave it so as to have as much of a surplus of the fish (surplus) as possible. (Oops sorry for eating it, it looked so yummy!) Fish is, to me, a mandatory Chinese New Year food. All other things you can have one or the other, but this one you gotta have.
- Firecrackers + fireworks – Depending on where you are, these may not factor into your celebration, but a large Chinese community (think Chinatowns) will definitely see some firecrackers and there’s a good chance you’ll see fireworks somewhere, regardless of how legal they are where you live. These are super dangerous and have caused an incredible amount of damage in China, but you know, they scare off demons trying to sneak in with all the fresh good luck while you sealeup your house to keep them the heck outta there. Bring ear plugs if you suspect explosions to occur; tinnitus does not bring good luck with it.
- Lantern festival – Very traditionally, in some places, you celebrate the Lunar New Year, aka the Spring Festival, over 15 days. FIFTEEN. Each day, with it’s own traditions! The 15th day of the new year is the Lantern Festival, 元宵节 yuanxiaojie. On this day, you eat little glutinous rice balls called 汤圆 tangyuan or 元宵 yuanxiao, named for the 15th day holiday that you eat them on! And yes, there be lanterns.
Also, the year of the Rooster is the 本命年 benmingnian for people born in other years of the Rooster. It is actually a tricky time if it’s your 本命年, which I learned during my own 本命年 2 years ago, because essentially a lot of luck becomes focused on you – good and bad. This is the reason why my mother became very obsessed with buying me a red belt, and I heard a lot of talk about red belts for our family Roosters when I went back home to China as well. HOWEVER you can’t buy it for yourself? My mom was very firm about this, she wouldn’t leave without getting me something red and wouldn’t let me find something later on. So if you are turning a multiple of 12 (12, 24, 36, 48 60, etc.) this year, be mindful! You may find a lot of luck coming your way, so try to make sure it’s all good luck by wearing a lot of red and maybe some jade jewelry.
Overwhelmed? Don’t be! There are a lot of traditions but the most important thing is family and friends. You are trying to start the year off on the right foot by welcoming prosperity and fortune into your life with open arms.
And we do this by eating a lot of delicious food!
新年快乐！恭喜发财！Happy New Year, everyone!
Do you celebrate the Lunar New Year?
What are your favorite New Year foods/traditions?