Earlier this week as I was thinking about a special meal to prepare to celebrate the start of Chinese New Year and Year of the Dragon this Saturday, my mind wandered back to my childhood and the traditions I grew up with. With the start of each new year, I used to wonder if I had done a good job of passing on the important traditions to my own children who are American born Chinese just like me.
Now that my kids are older, I know even the smallest things my parents taught me that I’ve done as a mom have mattered. My 17 year old son understands why I’m constantly armed with our handheld vacuum a few days before the start of the new year. Cleaning the house is symbolic for driving away bad luck from the year before. He knows that cleaning on the first day of the new year will sweep away any good luck that could come with it.
We just got to visit our 20 year old daughter at college for parents’ weekend. In advance of Lunar New Year starting this Saturday, we brought her Year of the Dragon li see envelopes filled with cash, took her shopping for sweets to start the year, and bought Lunar New Year paper products from Target for her to have to celebrate the day with her friends.
If you’re looking to celebrate Chinese New Year in your home, here are some of the traditions I grew up with that are easy to do with your family to commemorate a new year. Please note that these are Chinese traditions that I grew up with as a Chinese American. Other Asian cultures celebrate Lunar New Year with different traditions.
Celebrating Chinese New Year
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!
For a look at what other things you should avoid to prevent accidentally bring in bad luck for the year, check out my girl Rosie’s (aka TheHustlingMama) Instagram video and be sure to click to read her caption!
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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 like our nieces and nephews.
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 used to wonder how well I’m doing sharing the customs and traditions of Chinese New Year with my own children. There were times when I felt like I was doing well and other times when I felt I’m faltering. Now that my kids are older, I can see how incorporating the customs and traditions associated with Chinese New Year have become an important part of their lives. If you’re a parent of young kids and are struggling, know that anything you do to maintain knowledge of your culture is better than not doing anything at all!
Teaching Kids About Chinese New Year & Family Traditions
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.
- 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
- Brush up on your Chinese New Year greetings thanks to The Woks of Life. They feature 23 greetings in both Mandarin and Cantonese and my favorite recipe for cha siu bao (barbecue pork buns).
- See Lunar New Year celebrations from around the world thanks to The Guardian who shares how The Year of the Ox is being welcomed in China, Thailand, Australia, the Philippines, Indonesia, North and South Korea, Russia, England, Vietnam, Hong Kong, and more countries in Asia and beyond.
Favorite Books About Chinese New Year and Culture
Don’t forget to read about Chinese New Year and get to know about AANPHI culture, history, and traditions through picture and chapter books! Here are some of our favorites!
Picture and Board Books for the Youngest Readers:
- My First Chinese New Year
- Chinese New Year Colors
- Ruby’s Chinese New Year
- Chloe’s Lunar New Year
- Dragon Dance
- Our Lunar New Year
- The Tray of Togetherness
- Playing with Lanterns
- A Sweet New Year for Ren
- Asian Adventures: Delicious Asian Foods from A-Z
- Dim Sum for Everyone
- Yum Yum Dim Sum
Great Books for Elementary Readers
- Holidays Around the World: Celebrate Chinese New Year
- Sam and the Lucky Money
- Bringing in the New Year
- Eyes That Kiss in the Corners
Graphic Novels for Older Readers
Fighting to Belong! is a brand new book just released yesterday that introduces students to Asian American and Pacific Islander history as an important and dynamic part of American history. This graphic novel will take readers on a trip through time with middle school protagonists and their guide, Kenji, as they observe key events in AANHPI history from the 1700-1800s. This is the first book to be published in the Fighting to Belong! series. I wish this book existed when my kids and I were in the middle grades because it’s great for AANHPI students and their peers to see themselves in history books.
- 12 Lucky Animals: A Bilingual Baby Book
- Home for Chinese New Year: A Story Told in English and Chinese
During the pandemic I decided I wanted to learn how to make more Chinese food, especially char siu bao, the baked pork buns our family loves. I found the Woks of Life blog and was instantly hooked. Everything I tried tasted like favorite dishes from restaurants frequented in and around the San Francisco Bay Area where I grew up and like those my parents always cooked. When I heard there was going to be a Woks of Life cookbook, I preordered it and anxiously awaited its arrival. These days it’s a trusted resource that I turn to for delicious meals at home and still subscribe to Woks of Life emails to be the first to know about their new recipes.
Amazon Affiliate links included in this post. All opinions are my own.