Celebrating Chinese New Year with traditions

To a majority of the world, Jan. 1 marks the start of the next year. According to the ancient Chinese lunisolar calendar, however, the placement of the sun, moon and stars creates the opportunity for another New Years’ occasion. From Jan. 21 to Feb. 5, Chinese New Year is celebrated throughout most of Asia, accompanied by exciting traditions, dazzling region-wide festivals and exclusively prepared New Years’ treats.

Red Envelopes: Perhaps Chinese New Year’s most anticipated and well-known tradition, the “hong bao” (red bag), a special kind of red envelope, is given to close friends or family members. The red envelope comes in many different designs, but well-meaning Chinese characters are often imprinted on the front in large gold text. Those who hand out the hong bao often put money and candies inside to wish them luck and prosperity in the upcoming new year. But this comes with strings attached: to leave with the envelope, the taker must return the giver’s blessings by saying a special phrase: “Gong Xi Fa Cai, Hong Bao La Lai,” meaning “I wish you prosperity, now give me the red envelope.”

Pasting Couplets: According to legend, a rooster in a peach tree would crow at dawn, calling all the nocturnal ghosts back from terrorizing the people. Some guards would also kill the evil ghosts, so tradition had people pasting the guards’ names onto peach boards hung on their doors to keep the ghosts away. Presently, it is a huge tradition in China to post red paper on your front door, containing couplets of bright wishes for the future. Most buy commercially printed couplets, but it is considered more meaningful to commission calligraphers to handwrite a set of couplets for your family.

Dragon Dance: An iconic Chinese cultural procession, the dragon dance is a vivid performance that practically every good New Years’ festival features. After creating their dragon model using wood, aluminum, plastic and colorful cloth, the performing troupe controls the beast’s movements by waving poles in a coordinated fashion—thus creating the dragon dance. The model is typically 30 feet in length, but unlike the constant red which symbolizes fortune in most of the other Chinese New Years’ traditions, the dragon is made up of many different colors and patterns. In close relation, the more professional, acrobatic lion dance is performed without poles, moving through the performers’ legs instead.

Rice Cake: Dating back to 589 A.D, the “nian gao”, or rice cake, was supposedly an offering to the Kitchen God. The humans tried to use this sticky treat to keep the Kitchen God’s mouth stuck together so he couldn’t make trouble for them in front of the Jade Emperor. The rice cake is made from sticky, glutinous rice flour, brown sugar and extra toppings to improve the visual impact, like dates. Nowadays, these sweets are commonly eaten any time of the year, but it is most popular in Chinese New Year’s celebrations due to its literal translation “year cake,” which represents growth throughout one’s years.

Lantern Festival: On the final, fifteenth day of Chinese New Years’ celebrations, people hang up as many red lanterns as possible, giving the illusion that the lights are naturally floating in the sky in commemoration of the Lantern Festival. During the night, firecrackers are lit and children run around with paper lanterns marked with Chinese characters, which serve as clues to guessing games. While people roam and admire the radiant display, they nibble on “tangyuan”, a sticky, glutinous rice ball that easily bursts to reveal the sweet bean paste or peanut-butter filling inside. In the present, the lanterns represent fortune and hope, both of which are central to the spirit of Chinese New Year.