CHINESE NEW YEAR FAMILY REUNIONS
Chinese New Year is a Time of Family Reunions
New Year's Eve and New Year's Day are celebrated as a family affair, a time of
reunion and thanksgiving. The celebration was traditionally highlighted with a
religious ceremony given in honor of Heaven and Earth, the gods of the
household, and the family ancestors.
The sacrifice to the ancestors, the most vital of all the rituals, united the
living members with those who had passed away. Departed relatives were
remembered with great respect in the past as they still are today because they
were responsible for laying the foundations for the fortune and glory of the
The presence of the ancestors is acknowledged on the eve of the New Year with a
dinner setting arranged for them at the family banquet table. The spirits of the
ancestors, together with the living, celebrate the onset of the New Year as one
great community. The communal feast called "surrounding the stove" (weilu)
symbolizes the unity of the family and honors the past and present generations
of the lineage.
CHINESE NEW YEAR TRADITIONAL FOODS
Traditional New Year Foods
Probably more food is consumed during the period of celebrating New Year than
any other time in the year. In addition to preparing vast amounts of traditional
food for family and friends, food is also cooked for those close to us who have
On New Year's Day the Chinese family will eat a vegetarian dish called jai.
Although the various ingredients in jai are root vegetables or fibrous
vegetables, many people attribute various superstitious aspects to them:
- Lotus seed - signify having many male offspring
- Gingko nuts - represents silver ingots
- Black moss seaweed - is a homonym for exceeding in wealth
- Dried bean-curd is another homonym for fulfillment of wealth and happiness
- Bamboo shoots - is a term which sounds like "wishing that everything would
- Bean curd or Tofu is not included as it is white and unlucky for New Year
as the color signifies death and misfortune.
Other foods are a whole fish to represent togetherness and abundance and a
chicken for prosperity. The chicken must be presented with a head, tail and
feet, to symbolize completeness. Noodles should be uncut, noodles represent long
life. In south China the favorite and most typical dishes were nian gao, sweet
steamed glutinous rice pudding and zong zi (glutinous rice wrapped up in reed
leaves), another popular delicacy. In the north, steamed wheat bread (man tou)
and small meat dumplings were the preferred food. The tremendous amount of food
prepared at this time was meant to symbolize abundance and wealth for the
CHINESE NEW YEAR DECORATIONS
Chinese New Year's Decorations
Prior to Chinese New Year Day, we decorate our living rooms with vases of pretty
blossoms, platters of oranges and tangerines, and a candy tray with with eight
varieties of dried sweet fruit. On walls and doors are poetic couplets, happy
wishes written on red paper. These messages sound better than the typical
fortune cookie messages. For instance, "May you enjoy continuous good health"
and "May the Star of Happiness, the Star of Wealth, and the Star of Longevity
shine on you" are especially positive couplets.
Plants and Flowers: Every traditional Chinese household should
also have live blooming plants to symbolize rebirth and new growth. Flowers are
believed to be symbolic of wealth and high positions in one's career. Lucky is
the home with a plant that blooms on New Year's Day itself for that foretells a
year of prosperity. In more elaborate settings, plum blossoms just starting to
bloom are arranged with bamboo and pine sprigs, the grouping symbolizing friends
- the plum blossom also signifies reliability and perseverance; the bamboo is
known for its compatibility, its utility and its flexible stems for furniture
and other articles; the evergreen pine evokes longevity and steadiness. Other
highly prized flowers are the pussy willow, azalea, peony, and water lily or
narcissus. The Chinese firmly believe that without flowers, there would be no
formation of any fruits. Therefore, it is of the utmost importance to have
flowers and floral decorations. They are the emblems of reawakening of nature,
they are also intimately connected with superstition and with the wish for
happiness during the ensuing year.
Oranges and Tangerines: Etiquette dictates that you must bring
a bag of oranges and tangerines and enclose a lai see when visiting family or
friends anytime during the two week long Chinese New Year celebration.
Tangerines with leaves intact assure that one's relationship with the other
remains secure. For newlyweds, this represents the branching of the couple into
a family with many children. Oranges and tangerines are symbols for abundant
Candy Tray: The candy tray arranged in either a circle or
octagon is called "The Tray of Togetherness" and has a dazzling array of candy
to start the New Year sweetly. Each item represents some kind of good fortune.
After taking several pieces of candy from the tray, adults places a red envelope
(lai see) on the center compartment of the tray
- Candied melon - growth and good health
- Red melon seed - dyed red to symbolize joy, happiness, truth and sincerity
- Lychee nut - strong family relationships
- Kumquat - prosperity (gold)
- Coconut - togetherness
- Peanuts - long life
- Longnan - many good sons
- Lotus seed - many children
The holiday is shared by millions of people with much zest in Chinatowns
throughout the world. The atmosphere in our local Chinatown is colorful and
carnival like. In fact, a carnival does take place right at Portsmouth Square
(located in San Francisco Chinatown). Street vendors bring out to the sidewalk
products associated with the occasion: festive dried goods and candy, flowers
and plants, and packets of red envelopes in all sizes and always decorated with
calligraphy or characters in gold.
CHINESE NEW YEAR TABOO AND SUPERSTITIONS
TABOO AND SUPERSTITIONS
The entire house should be cleaned before New Year. On New Year's Eve, all
brooms, brushes, dusters, dust pans and other cleaning equipment are put away.
Sweeping or dusting should not be done on New Year for fear that good fortune be
swept away. After New Year's day, the floors may be swept. Beginning at the door
the dust and rubbish are swept to the middle of the parlor, then placed in the
corners and not taken or thrown out until the fifth day. At no time should the
rubbish in the corners be trampled upon. In sweeping, there is a superstition
that if you sweep the dirt out over the threshold, you will sweep one of the
family away. Also to sweep the dust and dirt out of your house by the front
entrance is to sweep away the good fortune of the family; it must always be
swept inwards and then carried out, then no harm will follow. All dirt and
rubbish when taken out must never be through the front entrance but by the back
BRINGING IN THE NEW YEAR AND EXPELLING THE OLD
Shooting off firecrackers on New Year's Eve is the Chinese way of sending out
the old year and welcoming in the new year. On the stroke of twelve on New
Year's Eve, every door in the house, and even windows, have to be open to allow
the old year to go out.
NEW YEAR ACTIVITIES SET PRECEDENT
All debts had to paid by this time. Nothing should be lent on this day, as
anyone who does so will be lending all the year. In olden times when tinder and
flint were used, no one would lend them on this day or give a light to others.
Everyone should refrain from using foul language and bad or unlucky words.
Negative terms and the word "four" (Ssu) as it sounds like the like the word for
death are not uttered. Death and dying are never mentioned and ghost stories are
totally taboo. References to the past year is also avoided as everything should
be turned towards the new Year and a new beginning.
If you cry on New Year's day, you will cry all through the year. Therefore,
children are tolerated and are not spanked, even though they are mischievous.
MISCELLANEOUS NEW YEAR SUPERSTITIONS
For those most superstitious, before leaving the house to call on others, the
Almanac should be consulted to find the best time to leave the home and the
direction which is most auspicious to head out.
The first person one meets and the first words heard are significant as to what
the fortunes would be for the entire year. It is a lucky sign to see or hear
songbirds or red-colored birds or swallows.
It is considered unlucky to greet anyone in their bedroom so that everyone, even
the sick, would get dressed and sit in the living room.
Do not use knives or scissors on New Year Day as this may cut off fortune.
It is doubtful that Chinese today actually believe in these do's and don'ts
however, these traditions and customs are still practiced. These traditions and
customs are kept because most families realize that is these very traditions,
whether believed or not, that provide continuity with the past and provide the
family with an identity.
PERSONAL APPEARANCE AND CLEANLINESS
One New Year's Day, we are not suppose to wash our hair because it would mean we
would have washed away good luck for the new year. Red clothing is preferred
during this festive occasion. Red is considered a bright, happy color, sure to
bring the wearer a sunny and bright future. It is believed that appearance and
attitude during New Year's sets the tone for the year to come. Children and
unmarried friends, as well as close relatives are given lai see, little red
envelopes with crisp one dollar bills inserted, for good fortune.
Chinese New Year: Fact and Folklore by: William C. Hu
Ars Ceramica, Ltd. Ann Arbor, Mi. 1976 ISBN 0-89344-037-x
San Francisco Chinatown A Walking Tour by: Shirley Fong-Torres
China Books & Periodicals Inc. San Francisco, Ca. 1991 ISBN 0-8351-2436-3
Mooncakes and Hungry Ghosts Festivals of China by: Carol Stepanchuk and Charles
China Books & Periodicals Inc. San Francisco, Ca. 1991 ISBN 0-8351-2481-9
Outlines of Chinese Symbolism and Art Motives by: C.A.S. Williams
Dover Publications, Inc. New York 1976 ISBN 0-486-23372-3
Traditional Chinese Festivals by: Marie-Luise Latsch
Graham Brash (Pte) Ltd. Singapore 1988 ISNB 9971-947-80-3