Lunar New Year (which falls on February 16 this year) is celebrated across the globe by millions of people. It is rich with common customs and symbolism, but the holiday is personal and different for every family. This article—as well as the recipes for long life noodles, 8-ingredient whole steamed fish (this is important, and you'll soon learn why), and smacked cucumbers—is excerpted from the cookbook Chinese Soul Food by Hsiao-Ching Chou. She shares what the holiday means to her Manchurian/Henanese/Taiwanese-American family.
Celebrating Chinese New Year is what centers me. In so many ways, the contours of what used to separate my Chinese upbringing and American influences have become less distinct and more amorphous. I often catch myself skipping the formality and deference that my father would have insisted on. So preparing for the customs and feasting related to Chinese New Year snaps into focus what it means to me to be Chinese. Since my brothers and I all have mixed families, it’s this holiday that gives us the opportunity to bridge the valley between our culture and the one that my children and their cousins inhabit.
After my father died, my mother moved in with us. Because she is our matriarch, my home is now the gathering place for our annual reunion feast. Chinese New Year is so ingrained in our lives that everything from how our dining room is arranged to the size of our dinner table is determined, in part, by how they facilitate hosting family for New Year’s. The kids get excited because they know they’ll be receiving red envelopes filled with money to wish them longevity. I plan, shop, and prep for the meal over several days. The refrigerator starts to groan from being stuffed with ingredients. My commercial-size steamer comes out of the basement storage. Pots and pans that normally sit in the back of the cabinet are enlisted into service.
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I have to design the menu to reflect foods that have auspicious qualities conferred upon them by virtue of their shape or symbolic names. Whole fish, with head and tail intact, represents family unity. They also represent prosperity, because one of the phrases you say to wish others good luck and good fortune includes a word that is a homophone for “fish.” Tangerines are significant because the color and shape are reminiscent of the gold ingots that used to be used for money, so you will see bowls of tangerines as decoration and as an offering to the ancestors. Extra-long noodles are served to wish people longevity.
I have hosted Chinese New Year as a single young professional, a newlywed, a new mom, and now as the eldest sibling who bears some responsibility to carry on family traditions and mark the milestones of our growing extended family. My mother has seven grandchildren, from an infant to a fourteen-year-old. For her to be able to preside over her legacy is a privilege. Chinese New Year ultimately is about reuniting the family around the table, honoring the elders and the departed, and celebrating our collective good fortune to be in this world.
Symbols and Superstitions
Chinese New Year, also known as “Lunar New Year” or “Spring Festival,” lands according to the lunar calendar, so the actual date varies from year to year. It takes place sometime between January 20 and February 20. Traditionally, the holiday is celebrated over fifteen days. Businesses tend to go on holiday. Students get extended time too. Family members are expected to return home from wherever they may be in the world. The Chinese calendar also follows a twelve-year cycle, and each year is represented by an animal. Each of the animals in the Chinese zodiac possesses character traits. It’s believed that your zodiac sign influences your personality and horoscope. Matchmakers use the zodiac to ensure matches are ideal. There are so many symbolic foods and superstitions that I learn something new every year. Eight, for example, is a lucky number, so you may see dishes that include eight ingredients or menus that include eight dishes. The pronunciation of eight, “ba,” is similar to the word “fa,” which is related to wealth and prosperity.
Clean the house to get rid of any bad luck. After the New Year, you can’t sweep the floor during the first few days or you’ll sweep away the good luck.
Families pay their respects to the elders by kneeling before them and bowing their heads to the floor (kowtowing).
The elders give children red envelopes filled with money to ensure longevity.
Everyone wears new clothes.
People set off firecrackers to scare away evil and bad fortune. They also hang “double-happiness” signs and good-fortune signs.
Chinese New Year ultimately is about reuniting the family around the table, honoring the elders and the departed, and celebrating our collective good fortune to be in this world.
Because eight is a lucky number, you will see eight represented in different ways. In the United States, you can order “lucky money” from the Treasury Department, which are dollar bills printed with a serial number that starts with four eights. The bills arrive sheathed in plastic and set in a large red card and matching envelope.
Families that are scattered in different cities all return home for the holiday.
The feast not only helps to celebrate the holiday, but also creates leftovers.
You aren’t supposed to use a knife in the first few days or it’s believed you’re cutting out good fortune.
Hsiao-Ching Chou is the author of "Chinese Soul Food: A Friendly Guide for Homemade Dumplings, Stir-Fries, Soups and More." She lives in Seattle with her family. Text her cooking questions via her messaging service: 206-565-0033.
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