It’s already Chinese New Year 2021 at the time of writing (in China, at least – there’s still 10 minutes to go before midnight here in Ontario, Canada). Year of the Ox! It’s probably my favourite holiday of the year, with traditions including dumplings from scratch (even the wrappers!), watching 春节联欢晚会 (chūn jié lián huān wǎn huì; an annual broadcasted new year’s gala of singing, skits, magic, etc.), red pockets, and many other delicious foods. [Skip to: 8 Chinese New Year Traditions to Remember]
Something new I noticed this year was that this celebratory atmosphere of excitement and love and abundance that I felt was similar to the portrayal of Christmas in Western media. You know, quality time with family, way too much food to be able to finish, and a sense of magic and hope in the air. My Christmases don’t exactly have that vibe after the magic of childhood has dissipated.
I realized – today, actually – that CNY still has this amazing atmosphere because my parents (my mom, especially) have been excited for it. Buying special snacks, planning an elaborate 年夜饭 (nián yè fàn, NYE dinner) menu, calling all our relatives, telling stories of her CNY memories as a kid. My point is, this holiday is more impactful because I can actually feel the generations of rich tradition in my soul – compared to holidays like Christmas or Thanksgiving, which feel more like a date on the calendar and excuse to take a day off with family.
Revelations of self-identity (and a new direction for the blog)
With recent conversations on systemic oppression of BIPOC folx and other sub-populations, I’ve become increasingly aware of my own labels. Woman. Queer. Person of colour/visible minority. I was born and raised here in Canada by my lovely parents who immigrated from China a few years before I came into the world, ready to dominate. I also had the privilege of growing up in largely Chinese-Canadian communities; most of my schools had significant East Asian populations. Most of my childhood/high school friends ate the same things I ate, celebrated the same holidays, had many of the same experiences (*ahem* Saturday Chinese school, piano lessons, etc.), so I rarely felt “othered” in my safe little bubble.
Learning and growing through new experiences
Fast forward to being released into the real world and starting my undergrad at the University of Guelph. The demographic proportions of those around me suddenly flip from ~85% East Asian/Chinese to ~85% VeryCanadian WhitePeople™. Woah. But the change was good. I couldn’t hide in a shelter of other Asian bodies anymore. First two years, I did my thing. 90%+ student, doing research, getting published, securing multiple leadership experiences, just being awesome overall, etc. This year, with the combination of light shed on systemic oppression in the media especially for Black and Indigenous folx, and in-course discussions about power and social location (see: Power Flower), I’m getting more comfortable with learning about anti-oppressive practices and advocacy. (I could go on, but that would be another post entirely. Read this article on White Supremacy in Eating Disorder Treatment.)
With these new revelations and heightened awareness of the multiple interacting facets of my own identity, I’m taking it upon myself this year to embrace, preserve, and explore my Chinese heritage. Although I have learned about the various holidays and stories from my parents and Chinese school, I’m worried I’m going to forget them and not be able to pass down that knowledge to my future kids. So, my plan is to start a new series of blog posts documenting all that I learn (important recipes included). This is mostly a reflective practice for myself, but you’re welcome to join me on this ride. First up: Chinese New Year traditions.
Chinese New Year: 8 Traditions to Remember
Note: There are some Chinese New Year traditions that are common all across China. Others might differ by region, or even by family. This is just an amalgamation of things, in roughly calendar order, that my family does or has done. For context, both parents are from Northern China.
Also, we call it “Chinese New Year” and not “Lunar New Year” because it’s the direct translation from 中国新年 (zhōng gúo xīn nián). I get that other countries celebrate the Lunar New Year, this is just what we call it so leave us be. If you do not celebrate this holiday, but want to send well wishes to a friend who does, ask what they prefer. Lunar New Year can be used if you want to send a general message (e.g. post on your story) since it’s likely not just one culture of people that will see it.
1. 腊八蒜 (là bā suàn, raw pickled garlic)
On the 8th day of the 12th month on the Lunar calendar (腊月八日，腊八节), it’s not only time to eat your 8 Treasures Congee (腊八粥), but also to start pickling some garlic! 腊八蒜 literally means [month 12 day 8] + [garlic], though 腊八 is really more of a holiday/special day rather than just a regular date.
Peeled garlic cloves and rice vinegar are put into a jar on this day, and set aside in a cool place until CNY (春节)! In the month or so that passes, the garlic turns the greenish colour of oxidized copper (think: Statue of Liberty). There is an exchange of flavour as the garlic becomes more sweet and mild, and the vinegar develops the kick of raw garlic. On the day of the new year, the vinegar and the garlic are eaten with dumplings.
My dad is the one who does this in our family. He’s used black rice vinegar in the past, but tried clear rice vinegar this year, and it looks like the garlic has still greened up. Taste test tomorrow!
2. 祭灶日 (jì zào rì, day for the kitchen god)
My mom just told me about this one today. There might be an “official” English translation for it, but I like the sound of this one. Breakdown of 祭灶日: 祭 = remember/sacrifice，灶 = 灶王爷 = God of the Kitchen/Stove，日=day. Essentially, in olden times, this would be a day to recognize this god so that your home would be blessed and awesome for the rest of the year (seeing as the kitchen is such an integral part of the home). This is on the 23rd day of the 12th month.
Have we ever celebrated this in my immediate family? Nope. But, my mom said her favourite and main memory of this day as a kid was getting to eat 关东糖 (guān dōng táng), a type of sesame candy treat. And so, this has made the list so I remember to learn to make 关东糖 eventually.
3. 12月24日：spring cleaning, basically
We all do our best to clean our space once in a while (though sometimes life just gets in the way, and it can get really messy). Here’s the next of these Chinese New Year traditions: on the 24th day of the 12th month, we’re supposed to do a DEEP CLEAN. Like, a serious purge of the space so you’re spick and span and ready to tackle the new year. A fresh slate. All that jazz. A little late on that this year (though I did do a mini clean), but a few years ago I do recall cleaning even the tops of my door frames where they stick out from the wall and collect dust. Big ew.
4. Buy lots of snacks – and share with friends!
“Sunflower seeds, peanuts, and walnuts,” the three staples, according to my mom. (I should give her an APA citation at this point, she’s such a key resource for this post.) “But you’re allergic, so … just sunflower seeds I guess. And also candies and other snacks to keep out on the counter, to give the feel of abundance.” The past couple days, I have been a happy gal – eating fried tofu crisps, squid jerky, and pomelo!
After coming home with the CNY snack haul, my mom put everything out on the counter, looked at the spread (very proud of herself), and said “这才叫过年的样！” (“Now, this is what CNY should look like!”) I agree.
It’s also pretty customary to share the ‘wealth’ (food) with friends and loved ones. Common gifts include: pomelos, mini kumquat trees, mandarins/clementines (桔子／橘子 sounds like 吉 as in 吉利, which means lucky), cookies, dried goods (longyan, goji berries, raisins), nuts/seeds, snacks/candy. However, you can give anything in good spirit!
5. 年夜饭 (nián yè fàn, NYE dinner)
The night before the big day, you have a big dinner! Must-have Chinese New Year traditions include:
- 鱼 (fish), homonym for abundance (余); “年年有余” to have extra/leftover/abundance every year
- 年糕 (sticky rice cake, recipes vary by region and even household); “年年高” to get higher/better every year
- meat dish of some kind, because meat is expensive/special occasion (people couldn’t always afford it before)
I learned that this day is also called 大年三十儿 colloquially, which is fun. (Essentially means the 30th before the new year/big day.)
6. 拜年 (bài nián, wish elders and friends happy new year)／红包 (hóng bāo, red envelopes)
“给爷爷奶奶拜年！… 来，给大姨拜个年！” Wish your grandparents a happy new year! … Come, wish your aunt happy new year!
Traditionally (a.k.a. what my parents experienced), kids would go around the neighbourhood wishing all their relatives and aunties and uncles a happy new year in exchange for red envelopes or other treats (kind of like trick-or-treating). My experience as a kid was more like having the home phone pushed against my ear (why was it always so hot and the volume so high?) with a relative on the other side, plus having my mom or dad’s head right against mine so they could hear too. In recent years, everyone’s moved onto WeChat, so we can 拜年 over video call. Also, with the 13-hour time difference between Ontario, Canada and China, we always 拜年 the night before (their morning of).
Of course, you also have to 拜年 to your own parents! My sister and I typically did this in the morning of CNY. My parents would sit on the couch and we could be on our knees, bow once, and say, “妈妈爸爸新年快乐，给你们拜年了！” (I will be doing this tomorrow morning as well. Not sure why I’m writing in past tense.) Since I’m not married yet, I will also receive a red envelope with a little money in it. My sister is married, on the other hand, so now she has to give money (to next generation of kids). HAHAHA.
7. 春节联欢晚会 (chūn jié lián huān wǎn huì, CCTV New Year’s Gala)
I remember getting up early as a kid and running down to the family room to watch this with my dad. This is an annual new year’s special that’s broadcast on TV – though I think you can just watch it on YouTube now. We used to watch it every year, typically having it play throughout the morning (since the countdown to China’s midnight is equivalent to noon here). My favourite segments have always been the short skits and magic acts.
8. 包饺子 (bāo jiǎo zi, making dumplings)
The last and MOST IMPORTANT of these Chinese New Year traditions (for me, at least) is making homemade dumplings together as a family. In past years, we’ve also done CNY parties with family friends where it’s just this big group of 30 people making dumplings together, and everyone has their specific role of expertise, and suddenly you’ve got a gazillion dumplings ready to feed the masses.
These dumplings are made/eaten on the actual New Year day (春节／正月一日), and can have a variety of fillings. When wrapping them, we’ll also put a raisin or piece of date in a couple of them – whoever eats one of these “special” dumplings will have good luck/prosperity for the year! (It used to be coins, but that is both unsanitary and a potential hazard.)
Do you have any Chinese New Year traditions in your family that I didn’t include? Leave a comment and let me know! I’d love to hear about them.
Thanks for reading and Happy Chinese New Year! 新年快乐！Stay tuned for upcoming CNY recipes for most of the foods mentioned above 🙂 I will try to post as many as possible.
Instagram: Chinese New Year traditions
Did you catch my post on Instagram? I love the way this turned out but the drawings took so so long … all for the ‘gram! Be sure to like, follow, and share 🙂 <3