Traditions of Chinese New Year
Chinese New Year is defined as the first day of the first month based on the traditional Chinese lunar calendar which indicates both the moon phase and the time of the solar year. A lunar month is around 2 days shorter than a solar month and that is why, according to the solar calendar, the Chinese New Year falls on a different date every year.
Also called the Spring Festival, for Chinese people all over, the Lunar New Year is a time for happy reunions, family and friends, rich in colorful traditions and customs.
Typically, the celebration will start from the New Year’s Eve and will last for 15 days.
Although the family remains an important component of Chinese New Year, the new generation’s modern urban lifestyle has affected the importance placed on this celebration. Nowadays, more and more young people prefer to take advantage of the break to go overseas for a short vacation rather than follow the traditions of the occasion.
Nevertheless, it is important to keep the traditions alive, so that we can teach the next generation about a particular shared past and preserve the Chinese cultural heritage.
New Year’s Eve Dinner
The New Year’s Eve dinner is the most important dinner for the Chinese. Normally, this is the family reunion dinner, especially for those with family members who are away from home, either working or studying overseas. During the dinner, dishes signifying prosperity such as fish, dumplings, spring rolls and niangao are served. “Fish” in Chinese sounds like ‘surplus’, and the Chinese believe that by eating auspicious food like fish, the family will have a surplus at the end of the year.
In the past, the New Year’s Eve dinner is usually taken at home, but with growing affluence and a busy lifestyle, it is becoming very common for the dinner to be held in restaurants.
Fireworks and firecrackers
In Chinese folklore, a mythical beast, ‘Nien’, used to attack villagers every spring. It could only be driven away by the colour red and loud noises. So, right after midnight on New Year’s Eve, fireworks will be launched to celebrate the coming of the New Year as well as to drive away the evil. The tradition of lighting firecrackers is also to ward off the beast. However, due to numerous mishaps caused by firecrackers, they have been banned in Singapore since 1972.
A few days before the Chinese New Year, people will do a complete cleaning of the house to signify removing the old and welcoming the new. It is usually considered bad luck to sweep the floor on the first day of Chinese New Year, as it represents sweeping away the luck.
After the cleaning, people will decorate the house to welcome the New Year. Most of the decorations are red in color. The most popular New Year decorations are the upside down “fu”, couplets or “dui lian” which are phrases with auspicious meanings, lanterns, papercutting etc. Pineapples are also considered auspicious, as the pronunciation means “arrival of prosperity”.
The red packet or “ang pow” is a red envelope with new, crispy and shiny dollar bills in it, which ranges from as little as $2. Who gives and how much to give really depends on the personal relationship and the age of the children. Usually the red packet is given by married couples and the elderly to young children. It is believed that the money in the red packet will suppress the evil from the children, keep them healthy, and give them a long life with good luck.
Any amounts with a “4” is considered as bad luck and must be avoided, as the pronunciation of “4” sounds like “death”. “8” is of course the lucky number, as it sounds like “luck” in Cantonese.
Exchange of oranges during home visits
Visits to homes during Chinese New Year are usually accompanied by the exchange of Mandarin oranges. The Chinese word for orange sounds like “luck” and “wealth”, and it is considered rude to visit anyone’s home empty-handed. When you arrive at someone’s home, present a pair of oranges (or pairs) to the head of household. They will then exchange these as a gesture of goodwill before you leave.
Tossing “yu sheng”
Also known as “lo hei” in Cantonese, this Singaporean traditional “yu sheng” or raw fish salad signifies abundance, vigor and prosperity (“yu” which means fish in Chinese, means abundance). Every ingredient in the dish, such as raw fish, pomelo, pepper, oil, carrots, shredded green radish, white radish, peanut crumbs, sesame seeds, plum sauce and deep-fried flour crackers, represent a different auspicious wish. It is customary to say these aloud while adding each ingredient into the mix one by one. With chopsticks ready, diners toss the ingredients as high as possible, yelling ‘huat ah!‘ which means ‘to prosper’ in hokkien. It is believed that the higher you toss, the greater your luck will be for the whole year.
So, now that you more familiar with the some of the traditions, you are ready to kick off the Chinese New Year celebrations. Gong Xi Fa Cai!