BY ALINA GAO
Mongkol Chuewong/Getty Images
Lunar New Year is a holiday that celebrates the first moon of the Lunar calendar. Every year represents a different animal, and the calendar cycles through 12 animals: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig. The order of the animals is based on a Chinese myth about a race, corresponding to order of the animals in the lunar calendar. 2021 is the year of the ox. Based on the year you were born, everyone is a different animal.
Lunar New Year is not the same as Chinese New Year —Lunar New Year is celebrated across several countries of East Asia. Chinese New Year is only celebrated in China. Although the two holidays are similar, I am going to focus Chinese New Year traditions, because that is the holiday my family celebrates and I know most about.
The point of Chinese New Year is to guarantee wealth and fortune for the following year. Parents (and any relatives who have a job) give the children red envelopes full of money. These red envelopes are like a yearly allowance, and it is an incentive for the child to make lots of money when they become adults, in order to support their parents in old age. It is also standard for Chinese custom. If you are ever given a red envelope, make sure to receive it with both hands, bow, and say something along the lines of “I hope you will find wealth and good fortune”. Chinese New Year is a celebration for wealth, fortune, and health in the coming year.
The celebrations last for 15 days. On the first night, people typically have a large dinner where they invite their entire family. Then, over the next two weeks, they visit the houses of their friends and relatives.
Our customs are focused on bringing fortune into the new year and getting rid of bad spirits from the previous year. There are explosions and fireworks to scare off the demons, and light lanterns for a bright future. The lanterns and typically gold and red, for fortune and wealth. The “fu” symbol, which means good luck, is supposed to be hung upside down. This is because the character upside down looks like the Chinese character for “arrive”, which translates to luck walking into your house. We also have dragon dances, perhaps the most popular part of the festival. Multiple people dress up as one dragon, which are a symbol of luck and wealth in our culture. I don’t know the symbolism behind the dragons, except that dragons are a very large part of Chinese culture.
There are also superstitions during Lunar New Year that influence how we celebrate it. During the two weeks of Lunar New Year, you’re not supposed to clean. The superstition is that any dirt or dust during this period is good luck, and sweeping it away would be equivalent to sweeping luck away. However, prior to Lunar New Year, people usually buckle down to clean their houses. Other superstitions people have during Lunar’s New Year include believing that arguing and crying will bring you bad luck, so you should only smile and talk about good things, in order to project into the future.
Also, paying all your debts before the new year is seen as good practice. Tying any loose ends, and cutting your hair before Lunar’s New Year are all seen as good ways to get rid of any residue bad luck from the previous year. But during Lunar New Year, cutting anything is like severing the connection of your family. In the Chinese culture, family is a very large component. Your life is part of something bigger, such as your family, which is why most people feel so much pressure from their relatives. Our lives are shown as interconnected, while in Western culture, your life is your own. Based on what I’ve been told, In Chinese culture, your parents will raise you, and when you become an adult you will care for them.
We wear red during Lunar New Year, because it’s the color of happiness and luck. Black and white are associated with the demons and are seen as mourning colors, so we avoid wearing them.
It’s common for people to eat fish as well, because the Chinese pronunciation of fish (“yu”) is similar to the word abundance (“fu”), and you want leftover luck for next year. In northern China, people typically eat dumplings, and in western China, we eat a sweet, sticky dough called “nian gao”, and also ‘tang yuan”, which is a sweet filling wrapped in dough and boiled in water like soup. Dumplings are more often eaten in northern China, as opposed to all of China. This is because there is more flour in the north, and not as much rice. In addition, there’s less vegetables in the north, compared to the south, which has a lot of vegetables all year long. My mother said that her family usually just ate a lot of meat for Chinese New Year, and she lived in Jiang Xi, which is in the south-east of China.
This is also a time to offer sacrifices to ancestors and family members who have passed on. We light candles, incense, and make the favorite meal of the departed family member, which we leave at their grave/shrine. We think of them and pray to them. This holiday is a time for family and reflection, as well as fortune and the new year. I personally don’t have a lot of experience in offering sacrifices, but I know that family and spirituality is a large part of Lunar New Year.
My family’s traditions have been modified from traditional celebrations, which is seemingly unavoidable when living in Canada or America. Still, we gather all our immediate family members and eat a big dinner, including fish. Family members with jobs give red envelopes to the children and we eat nian gao. My parents call their family in China. But we only celebrate it for one night, instead of 15-23, and we don’t do explosions or have dragon dances. We don’t pressure each other into wearing red, either.
I feel like a common misconception about Lunar New Year’s is that everyone celebrates it the same way, with the same superstitions. The truth is that, like Christmas or any other holiday, traditions vary. It depends on your family and where you live. Not everyone in East Asia celebrates it, and definitely not the same way.
With COVID, most people won’t be visiting their family, because of traveling restrictions. There will also probably be smaller gatherings, and no public dances. But this doesn’t mean that we can’t collect good luck. We believe that smiling and celebrating will bring good fortune, which I think is a nice philosophy to have.