Chinese New Year Customs and Superstitions
Since New Year symbolizes a new beginning, Chinese believe in out with the old and in with the new so it’s a time to clean the house up and get rid of cobwebs, dirt and clutter. Decorating the house with auspicious objects like cherry blossoms, potted tangerines, dragons and anything red is a tradition. The cherry blossom symbolizes love; for people looking for romance, it is believed that if one walks around the cherry blossom a couple of times, they will find love. Married couples have to refrain from walking around the cherry blossom, as it believed that it might lead to extra marital affairs!
All these is done before New Year and on the eve of New Year, the family gets together for a reunion dinner where auspicious food will be cooked and served. Reunion dinners are important because it symbolizes unity in the family and eating auspicious food will bring good luck and fortune for the coming year. Typically, the dinner will have a cooked chicken/duck with its head, feet and everything intact symbolizing a good beginning and end. There is usually a whole fish as well, symbolizing friendship. Other items that are prepared are noodles for long life, dried oysters and moss for prosperity, and a dish with lettuce since the Chinese sound for lettuce means “alive”. After dinner, a Chinese dessert will be served in a form of a sweet soup with dumplings symbolizing a sweet and perfect year ahead. Members of the family will stay up until mid-night to welcome in the God of Prosperity by leaving the lights and front door open. Offerings are made to the God of Prosperity and a small prayer made to invite him to the house. The Kitchen God is also served a sumptuous meal believing that he will have good things to report back to the higher authority.
On the first day of the New Year, all brooms are put away and sweeping or emptying the trash is not allowed so that the good luck that comes to the house will not be swept or thrown away. Washing your clothes or hair is believed to wash away all the good luck and fortune that comes your way. It is believed that quarrels and breaking of objects will bring bad luck for the rest of the year. It is also customary to give out little red packets with money called “lai see” (meaning everything goes well), to children and friends.
Ms. Yong first learned about all this as a child growing up in Malaysia. My parents were very traditional and made sure we follow all these traditions/superstitions till now. I still try to practice since there’s no harm done and it’s a way of preserving our culture. I personally still enjoy the New Year since it’s a time for family to get together and it gives us hope that the New Year will bring new beginnings.
My mother spent her whole life in Asia until about ten years ago when my immediate family moved to the United States. When we were in Asia, I think these traditions were easier to practice, although we still do some of the ones she listed. I always received, and still do, lai see packets around the end of January, when Chinese New Year started. Before I was able to get the red packet, however, my mom would always make me say Gung hei fat choy! meaning, Happy New Year! When I was in about third or fourth grade, I remember my Mandarin teacher telling me to add lai see dow loy to the end of it, basically meaning now let me have the red packet! This is not usually appropriate to say, but as a little kid one can normally get away with it. I also remember my mom telling me not to sweep, clean, wash clothes, and the like on actual New Years Day in fear of washing the good fortune away. She was very superstitious and aware of these things, but I usually forgot. My mother still decorates our entire house with red decorations during the New Year; chocolate gold coins, tangerines, as well as lai see packets are some of the other common embellishments.
It is interesting learning about Chinese traditions, mainly because they all seem to revolve around food. This doesnt come as a shock to most people. K.C. Chang in his article Food in Chinese Culture: Anthropological and Historical Perspectives notes,
few can take exception to the statement that few other cultures are as food oriented as the Chinese. And this orientation appears to be as ancient as Chinese culture itself. According to Lun yu, when the duke Ling of Wei asked Confucius (551-479 B.C.) about military tactics, Confucius replied, “I have indeed heard about matters pertaining to tsu (meat stand) and tou (meat platter), but I have not learned military matters.”
Food often times takes precedence over other issues, maybe because it is essential to survival. Food also brings people together so holidays are normally celebrated with extended family in Chinese society. The process of cooking these meals and recipes used is a whole other branch of folklore that can be explored. Since Chinese civilization is one of the oldest to date, they have experimented with different foods, many of which are disturbing to outsiders. Some of these dishes include dog, snake blood, and cat. They are also fond of eating every part of the animal, including organs and appendages.
Brooms are also common in Chinese folklore. They are only used for cleaning purposes in Chinese culture, never for games or playing. Cleaning religious objects with brooms is thought of as disrespectful. Additionally, beating someone with a broom with bring bad luck upon them.
Some of these Chinese New Year rituals and superstitions are documented in Creating Circles & Ceremonies: Rituals for All Seasons And Reasons. They do not mention, however, some of the superstitions such as walking around the cherry blossom as was pointed out by Ms. Yong.
Zell-Ravenheart, Oberon, and Morning Glory Zell-Ravenheart. Creating Circles & Ceremonies: Rituals for All Seasons And Reasons. Career Press, 2006. Page 112