Every family and culture has its own traditions, passed down through generations and history more colorful than one can ever begin to imagine. At home, I celebrate the Lunar New Year as a testament to my Taiwanese and Chinese heritage. There are so many finer points to the 15-day celebration, but I will mostly be writing about the ones significant to my family. But before that, a bit of background information on the Lunar New Year may be needed:
The start of the Lunar New Year is on a different day each year. Unlike the western new year, which always falls on January 1, the Lunar New Year is dependent on the time that the moon takes to orbit around Earth. Therefore, the lunar calendar is always roughly 21-51 days behind the Gregorian calendar!
The Lunar New Year is also called the Spring Festival (chūnjié / 春節) and Chinese New Year, though it isn’t just Chinese people who celebrate it. Aside from China and Taiwan, countries such as Korea, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia also take part in the festivities.
It’s a 15-day celebration. Yes, you read that correctly! People participate in different activities and consume various foods on each day. I won’t go into detail about that, but if you’re interested in reading up on each day of the lunar new year, you can do a simple Google search.
The twelve animals of the zodiac represent each year, and 2018 is the year of the Dog. According to legend, the Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig had a race to determine the order in which they would represent the years to come. Since the Rat rode the Ox’s back and jumped off just before the Ox crossed the finish line, the Rat was able to finish first and be the first to represent the new year, the Ox was second, and so on and so forth in the order described above.
Red (and gold) are lucky colours. Red symbolizes good luck and joy. You’ll often see it adorning decorations and the red envelopes that elders hand out to children. So how exactly did red become such an auspicious colour? Legend says that there used to be a fearsome dragon named Nian (年, literally: year) who would, on a yearly basis, come down from his mountain habitat to terrorize villages. But one day, an old man claimed that he knew a way to scare off Nian. He hung up red paper and set off loud firecrackers, and the villagers soon realised that Nian was afraid of loud noises and the colour red. Nian never came back again, and henceforth, red became a lucky colour!
It’s a time to celebrate family togetherness as well as honor the deities. On the eve of the lunar new year, it is customary for families to gather together for a reunion dinner. Traditional foods such as dumplings (餃子 / jiaozi), fish, and “new year” cake (年糕 / niángāo) are served and savored.
I’ve been helping my grandmother make dumplings for Chinese New Year dinner as long as I can remember, but I really learned how to make dumplings with my mother. When I was much younger, I had no idea what I was doing. I mixed the stuffing with all the strength my chubby arms could muster. I pounded the sticky dough until it didn’t look like dough anymore, and I almost always ended up with a fine dusting of flour all over my fingers. Basically, I was a mess! But now that I’ve had more than a decade’s worth of experience in making dumplings, I’m welcomed back into the kitchen.
As we fold the dumplings into their final shapes, my grandmother sneaks a coin (washed thoroughly, of course) into a “lucky” dumpling and places it on a plate amongst the other dumplings so that it is impossible to discern from the rest. She then transfers the finished dumplings into a pot of boiling water to cook, and when they’re finished ten minutes later, I help bring the never-ending supply of dumplings to the dinner table. Our family eats, and the person who consumes the “lucky” coin dumpling is said to have good luck for the rest of the year.
There is always a fish on the table as well, though it remains untouched throughout the dinner for symbolic reasons. There is an ancient proverb that says, 年年有餘 (nián nián you yú), which roughly translates into “May you have an abundance of what you need.” The last Chinese character, 餘 (meaning: abundance), has the same pronunciation as 魚 (meaning: fish). So essentially, there’s a bit of word play at hand (have I ever mentioned how much I LOVE puns?) because 年年有魚 sounds just like 年年有餘. The fish is thus used as a symbol of abundance, and it isn’t eaten until later because it’s considered bad luck to “eat away” your good fortune prematurely.
For dessert, my mom and I make niángāo. Using chopsticks, I help mix the batter that’s used to coat the red bean paste filling that our family enjoys eating. We then cover the sweet red bean with the batter, on all sides, and fry the niángāo briefly in a pan until golden brown. It tastes absolutely delicious when hot!
On the fifteenth and final day of the lunar year celebrations, my mother makes tāngyuán (湯圓), sticky rice flour balls with sweet fillings such as taro, red bean, and my personal favourite, BLACK SESAME! These glutinous rice balls are eaten to commemorate the Lantern Festival, or 元宵節 (yuán xiāo jié). They used to be called 元宵(yuán xiāo), or “first evening,” instead of tāngyuán. There is such an interesting backstory to the different names and the Lantern Festival in general, and I’d highly recommend reading up on it!
I love spending time with my family (as crazy and weird as they are), so I’m a bit saddened that I can’t take part in the lunar new year festivities this year. Because I am away studying at university, I am unable to go home and enjoy my family’s food and company. It’s the first time in years that I haven’t helped with the traditional cooking and cleaning, and a small part of me misses the work. I miss making a mess of the flour. I miss hearing the sizzling niángāo in the pan. I miss eating way too many black sesame tāngyuán. But mostly, I miss the familiarity and comfort of home and being able to bond over shared laughter and kitchen catastrophes. It seems strange to be alone during a holiday that places so much emphasis on family togetherness, but I made sure to call my parents and grandparents and wish them well. I can’t wait to go home and see them all again. And with that, 新年快樂 (xīn nián kuài lè / happy new year)!