This morning as I stood at the sink, preparing our special meal to celebrate the start of Chinese New Year, my mind wandered back to my childhood and the traditions I grew up with. Today as we usher in a new year, I wondered how good of a job I’m doing imparting these traditions to my own children who are American born Chinese just like me.
Growing up in California, recognition of the coming New Year began well before the actual date it started. My mom and I would go shopping for oranges to give as gifts to friends and family to bring them luck and wealth. Besides the color, the Chinese word for orange sounds similar to gold. Sometimes we’d throw tangerines in too because that word is like luck. If we could find oranges and tangerines with leaves, even better! Leaves signify longevity and long life.
When I was younger, the orange and tangerine exchange always seemed a bit silly. We’d visit my grandparents or another friend or relative with our bag of oranges and tangerines and they’d give us one too. We’d always come home with about the same number as we took but as my mother always explained, it was more the significance of the act of giving rather than getting rid of the fruit itself.
In addition to the orange and tangerine exchange, we also had to be sure we cleaned the house prior to the start of the New Year.
“We want to sweep out the bad luck but keep the good,” my mother explained. It’s important to sweep out the bad luck from the previous year but customary to not clean for the first week to avoid sweeping away any good luck the New Year may bring. You’re welcome for the excuse to avoid cleaning for the next week!
With a clean house filled with oranges and tangerines, we were ready for the start of a New Year. I’d wake up and put on a new piece of clothing, greet my parents with “gung hay fat choy” (Happy New Year in Cantonese), and be presented with a li see, or lucky money.
Tucked inside the red bearing our last name written in gold in Chinese, would be a bit of money to represent prosperity and good luck. I was eligible to collect li see until I got married at which time the tables turned. Now my husband and I are on the giving side, with li see envelopes ready give unmarried children.
In the evening we’d join my grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and good family friends for a Chinese New Year banquet. Of course there was the orange exchange and the giving of li see to me and my brother from all of our married friends and relatives before sitting down to a long dinner with many courses.
Arranged months in advance, our banquet was a time to come together and eat traditional Chinese foods that bring good luck in the New Year. Whole fish with their head and tail attached to represent abundance, the vegetarian Jai dish made with ingredients to bring good luck, long noodles for long life (also popular at birthday banquets), and a sweet red bean soup accompanied by oranges and fortune cookies were just some of the dishes we enjoyed during our long meal.
In the absence of relatives and my parents living all the way across the country, I wonder how well I’m doing sharing the customs and traditions of Chinese New Year with our own children. There are times when I feel like I’m doing well and other times when I feel I’m faltering but anything I share to develop their knowledge of our culture is better than not doing anything at all.
If you’re curious about Chinese New Year and want to learn more about the customs, traditions, and foods associated with the celebration, here are some resources along with some of our favorite books.
- Find out what Chinese zodiac animal is associated with your birth year. According to ChinaHighlights.com, those born in the Year of the Sheep or Goat are “gentle mannered, shy, stable, sympathetic, amicable, and brimming with a strong sense of kindheartedness and justice.” Despite their gentle appearance, they’re tough on the inside, resilient, and while they prefer to be in groups, they don’t want to be the center of attention.
- Take a photo tour to see how the start of the new year is being celebrated around the world thanks to this collection of gorgeous Lunar New Year photos in The Guardian
- Learn about Chinese red envelopes. Referred to as li see or hong bao, read about the significance of red envelopes in How to Give Red Envelopes on ChinaHighlights.com
Don’t forget to read about Chinese New Year and get to know about traditions in China through favorite picture and chapter books! Here are some of ours!
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