Lunar New Year and Other Traditions

Since today is the Lunar New Year (aka Chinese New Year), a day of great significance and celebration for the Chinese culture (and for a number of other cultures), I thought I’d blog about it and a bit about a few Chinese traditions and superstitions.

I’ll start by filling you in on my cultural background. I am Chinese-Canadian, born in Canada, but my parents are both from Hong Kong (although my dad was born in Shanghai). My husband, on the other hand, is about as Canadian as you can imagine. Luckily, he is very open to trying foods from different cultures, is pretty adept at using chopsticks, and has been happy to embrace many Chinese traditions.

Double happiness: A Chinese character (frequently displayed during special occasions such as Chinese New Year and at weddings) representing good luck and joy in life and love

Double happiness: A Chinese character (frequently displayed during special occasions such as Chinese New Year and at weddings) representing good luck and joy in life and love

Most significantly, he was very excited and whole-heartedly agreed when I suggested we go with a traditional 12-course Chinese menu (consisting of a variety of symbolic dishes that are to thought to bring luck, prosperity, happiness, and long life to the newlyweds) for our wedding (minus the shark’s fin soup – something we both agreed on). We also had a traditional tea ceremony on our wedding day prior to the actual wedding ceremony. This involves the bride and groom kneeling and serving tea to their older relatives (i.e., grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles) beginning with the groom’s side of the family. I believe it is a way of showing respect and thanking your elders for helping to guide you up to this point in life.

From left to right: The tea set we used for the tea ceremony; my mom presenting me with a red envelope plus gold dragon and phoenix bangles

From left to right: The tea set we used for the tea ceremony; my mom presenting me with a red envelope plus gold dragon and phoenix bangles

In exchange for a cup of tea, the bride and groom receive gifts from their relatives in the form of either red envelopes containing money or other valuables, such as jewellery. I received a gorgeous pair of gold dragon and phoenix bangles from my parents that my mom had received from my grandfather at her wedding. These bangles are also a Chinese wedding tradition and are symbolic of eternal love.

From left to right: Another shot of my cheongsam and bangles; my husband holding one of the red envelopes we received

From left to right: Another shot of my cheongsam and bangles; my husband holding one of the red envelopes we received

It is traditional for Chinese brides to change outfits throughout the wedding reception so I complied (enthusiastically!) and wore three different dresses throughout the evening.  These dresses included a white wedding gown in a ball gown style, a custom-made cheongsam or qipao (a traditional form-fitting Chinese dress), and a final shorter dress that I thought would be easier to move around and dance in at the end of the night!

This brings me back to the significance of the Lunar New Year aka Chinese New Year. Although I grew up in Canada, my parents always emphasized the importance of Chinese traditions. We did not follow all traditions but we always celebrated the Chinese New Year. Usually this would mean meeting with both sides of my family (my dad’s and my mom’s) for a meal (dim sum or dinner). It would give the kids (my brother, myself, and my numerous cousins) opportunities to bai leen, which essentially means wishing your elders a happy new year in exchange for gifts of red envelopes with money in them.

My three wedding dresses

My three wedding dresses

This year, we had a Chinese New Year dinner at my parents’ house (on Friday since you’re supposed to have the dinner before new year’s day). Since Chinese restaurants are packed around this time and often limit you to a fixed course Chinese New Year menu, my parents decided to prepare dinner themselves. They served seven different dishes including chicken (the only dish they did not cook themselves), steamed fish, hair moss with lettuce, dried oysters and shiitake mushrooms, tofu topped with minced shrimp and cilantro, king oyster mushrooms with napa cabbage, lobster with ginger and scallions, and straw mushrooms with dried scallops. For dessert we had a sweet red bean soup with glutinous rice balls filled with black sesame paste.

Clockwise from top left: The whole meal; chicken; steamed fish; hair moss with lettuce, dried oysters and shiitake mushrooms

Clockwise from top left: The whole meal; chicken; steamed fish; hair moss with lettuce, dried oysters and shiitake mushrooms

Clockwise from top left: Tofu topped with minced shrimp and cilantro; king oyster mushrooms with napa cabbage; lobster with ginger and scallions; straw mushrooms with dried scallops

Clockwise from top left: Tofu topped with minced shrimp and cilantro; king oyster mushrooms with napa cabbage; lobster with ginger and scallions; straw mushrooms with dried scallops

So what is the meaning behind the food? The chicken is served whole (complete with head and feet) to represent completeness and unity of family. The fish is also served whole (complete with head and tail) and is served because the Chinese word for fish (yu) is a homophone for the Chinese word meaning “abundance”. The Chinese word for hair moss (fat choy) is a homophone for the Chinese word meaning “prosperity”. The Chinese word for dried oysters (ho see) is a homophone for the Chinese word meaning “good business”. The Chinese word for shrimp (ha) is a homophone for the Chinese word for “laughter”. Lobster is also traditionally served at Chinese weddings as the literal translation of the Chinese word for lobster is “dragon prawn” and dragons are a popular and positive symbol in the Chinese culture.

Lastly, I’ll mention a few of the superstitions and customs associated with the Chinese New Year. We are not supposed to sweep or clean on new year’s day as it would mean that we are sweeping away our good luck and fortunes. My mom insists that it is bad luck to cut your hair during the first month of the new year. Chinese hair salons are always much busier just before Chinese New Year. She also insists that we are not to wash our hair on new year’s day. This would also results in washing away our good fortunes. In fact, she had my dad send me an email yesterday to remind me that I should wash my hair before midnight if it needed washing.

My mom also sent some turnip and taro cakes home with us. They are also a Chinese New Year tradition symbolizing prosperity and good fortune.

My mom also sent some turnip and taro cakes home with us. They are also a Chinese New Year tradition symbolizing prosperity and good fortune.

My mom always encourages us to wear the colour red on new year’s day as red is a colour of good fortune and joy in the Chinese culture. On new year’s eve my mom would always place some money in red envelopes and then slip them into our pillowcases for luck. We were to leave the money in the pillowcases for at least the first month of the new year.

A variety of red envelopes

A variety of red envelopes

I am not particularly superstitious but generally go along with these things because my mom is very superstitious and would be horrified if I did not. Also, there’s something to be said for not messing with tradition!

In Hong Kong and China the Lunar New Year is such a big deal that, according to my parents, it is a three-day holiday public holiday there. Some people even have an entire week off. During this holiday there is much celebration and many festivities.

As is tradition, my husband and I met up with my parents today to bai leen. Since I knew my mom would appreciate it, we both wore something red (our matching red Canada jackets). We had yummy dim sum at Paradise Fine Chinese Cuisine, a restaurant we all enjoy.

We're so nerdy!

We’re so nerdy!

I enjoy Chinese New Year every year – food, superstitions, customs, and all! It’s easy to get caught up in the joy and excitement of a new year with new possibilities and the prospect of good fortune in the new year.

Good-bye Year of the Dragon! Hello Year of the Snake!

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