Chinese New Years
The informant who told me about the traditions associated with Chinese New Years was born and grew up in Hong Kong for a great part of his life. He speaks fluent Chinese and has had significant exposure to Chinese culture, given the fact that he and his family still speak the language and practice many of the traditional customs. He moved to the US in 5th grade.
Chinese New Years usually takes place during the end of January or in the beginning of February based on the Gregorian Calendar, because it is lunar based in comparison to the Western Calendar and therefore follows the moon. It is formally a fifteen day celebration, however, the informant’s family usually doesn’t celebrate past the second or third day and then the fifteenth day because it is significant in its own right. Throughout the New Year’s celebration, there is a tradition of saying auspicious phrases, which are usually 4 character phrases, related to good luck and happiness in every situation (See entry: Auspicious Phrases for Chinese New Years).
On New Years Eve there’s a big dinner, where the family eats a lot of food. The informant’s family, like a lot of Chinese families, places a lot of emphasis on abundance so the meal is a lot about saving up to have an abundance and then not wasting it. It is traditional to clear the table of food. There are puns, given that some of the foods have significant meanings – for example fish is eaten during New Year’s Eve dinner because fish sounds like the Chinese word for “abundance”. Tonal difference again is important. You eat foods like this to get good luck, homeopathically. In a more modern context on New Years Eve, you turn on the TV to a station that is celebrating. It is a really big deal, with people doing traditional plays or traditional performances like the dragon dance, which all come from stories about monsters and how New Years originally was a way to scare away those monsters with noise and fireworks. According to the informant, there is not too much of a liminal sense to the way in which his family celebrates New Years, other than making noise. Although here in the US there are stricter regulations on fireworks, back in Hong Kong, streets explode with fireworks, especially in more rural areas where the tradition stays really strong. New Years Day is a day when the entire family spends time with the fathers side of the family. Visiting his father’s parents is very convenient for the informant, given that the informant’s grandmother lives with them. It is therefore a pretty normal day, however there is a tradition for the elders to give kids red pockets or red envelopes. Giving a red envelope with money to a child meant that you hoped they would live long enough to use it. It used to be a reality that before the age of 1, many children in China died. The giving of red envelopes was an assurance that they would survive. New Years Day also involves more food, but it is a different set of food. This includes a vegetable that sounds exactly like the Chinese phrase for good luck or prosperity.
The Second Day, you visit the mom’s side of the family, which can be difficult for some people like the informant’s family since his mom’s family lives in Hong Kong. Instead he calls. The third day is called ‘Red Mouth’ which is connected to the fact that you are not supposed to talk to people that day. In a modern context, no one really practices that anymore, but it used to be practiced because apparently you risked making inflammatory remarks, angering people, and ruining relationships. The informant’s family doesn’t observe it. In fact his family primarily observes only Day 1 and Day 2 because that is all about visiting family and congratulating everyone for making it to the new year. An interesting fact is that in China, instead of saying “Happy New Year” you say “Congratulations”. This is due to the belief back in the old days that there were monsters that terrorized villages, and to escape being eaten by the monster on New Years Eve and to survive and make it to the new year was a big deal. Fireworks have something to do with why monsters don’t exist anymore, because they scare them off and starve them to death. The informant doesn’t really know what happens from day 4-14, given that his family doesn’t observe these days. Day 15, however, is the end of the New Year period, and it is celebrated with the lantern festival. Traditionally people would make lanterns with riddles on them. Its all about riddles, poetry and also eating dumplings, since the word for these dumplings is a pun of “lantern festival” in Chinese. The informant knows that in China and Hong Kong give breaks from school for students, but due to the fact that it is not the case here, he and his family work around and celebrate the most significant days of it. As he says, “It’s Chinese New Years in a very light sense.” He also said that his family used to dress traditional dress during this time, but after immigrating to the US a lot of things got watered down because people do not have the time. The informant has celebrated the traditional Chinese New Year for the entirety of his life.