My Chinese New Year Cheat Sheet

by Elizabeth Kain - Dim Sum Diary
( February 3rd, 2011 )

Can it really be that the year of the tiger is already winding down? Yes, it is true! Tomorrow we usher in the year of the rabbit.

In honor of the New Year, I decided to publish the cheat sheet I wrote 2 years ago in Hong kong, when I was desperately trying to understand this complex yet wonderful holiday. For my part, I have already cleaned and organized, sweeping away all of last year’s bad luck so that I am fresh and ready to accept all the good things the New Year has to offer.

So here it is, to ensure you too, will enjoy a properous and happy Year of the Rabbit, my offical CNY Cheat Sheet (first published February 3, 2007):

During the New Year, it is always important f to remember that all things have a beginning and an end, in other words, a sense of wholeness. For example, one must end the year with a feast – and begin the year with a feast. One must serve only a whole chicken or a whole fish complete with head and feet – or tail – as the case may be.

Many of the traditional New Year’s dishes are served because their Chinese characters carry a second, auspicious meaning. For example, the New Year’s cake is called nin goh, with goh meaning cake – but also rise – as in stature or promotion. The character for lettuce means “food for life,” fish is the same as abundance, and a popular black seaweed, “fat choy,” is served because it sounds like the “fat choy” that means prosperity. When put in water, it expands and eating it implies your fortunes will as well. Other treats, such as lotus seeds, bear auspicious associations, and in this case, fertility.

Of course numbers are also critical: Flowers should be purchased in 5, 8, or 9’s. The number five is lucky because in the old days, when people married at a young age, they hoped to live five generations. Nine represents longevity and of course 8 is lucky because the Cantonese word for eight, “bat,” rhymes with the one for prosperous, “fat”.

But enough generalities. Here’s a day to day guide for those of us westerners who are CNY-challenged but want to do right by this exciting and vibrant holiday.

New Year’s Eve (Wednesday, February 2):

This is the last day for making sure your house is clean, organized, and festooned with red decorations such as banners, firecrackers and fish. In addition, you should by now have a mandarin or kumquat tree, narcissus and other auspicious plants in your home. It is also a time of cooking. In the evening, there is a family gathering, and the meal will be comprised of especially yummy recipes for chicken (steamed not roasted), fish, pork, abalone, dumplings, Chinese lettuce, oysters, mushrooms, dried scallops and turnip, among other things. Now is the time to begin passing out lysee, little red envelopes stuffed with money, to children and single people in your family.

Day 1 of the New Year (Thursday, February 3):

Today is the second new moon after the winter solstice, when Chinese celebrate the first day of the New Year. Gong Xi Fa Cai! Your house had better be clean because today you cannot sweep or vacuum lest you “sweep away all of your good luck and prosperity.” “Okay,” my friend Vera said, “You can bend down and pick up a dropped piece of food, but no sweeping or vacuuming!”

After last night’s feast, you should eat light; vegetarian is preferred (“You don’t want to kill something on this day”) or congee (rice poridge).

Finally, you should visit relatives and be prepared to greet guests in your own home with refreshments. These are served in a red, round (round=perfection and wholeness) dish and there must be eight treats in the dish. Here’s are some things preferred in China:

1. Specially prepared roasted black watermelon seeds
2. Watermelon seeds dyed red for luck (they look like pumpkin seeds to me…)
3. Lotus seeds
4. Fried dumplings shaped like old Chinese wallets
5. Other snacks such as candied water chestnuts, coconut, kumquats, melon, carrots and lotus
6. Nowadays people also buy plastic gold-colored coins and Gods of fortune filled with sweets, as well as nuts and chocolate.

Day 2:

More visiting! Children don their traditional Chinese dress, and some say this is the day for the daughter-in-law to visit her parents. This is also the day to welcome the New Year with – you guessed it – a feast! This meal, called a “pun choi,” is comprised of many of the same things you find on New Year’s Eve, but layered in one large and very deep pan. You can make a “pun choi” or order one from a restaurant; our complex offers one for 3-4 people for about HUS$150. You also should eat nin goh, a glutinous rice cake. It is sticky, and everyone in the family must have some so that the family will “stick together” in the New Year.

Day 3:

Tired of visiting? It’s okay because on this day everyone stays home as people are “prone to quarrel.”

Day 7:

This is considered everyone’s birthday!

Day 15:

Chinese celebrate the 15th day of the New Year – the first full moon – with a lantern festival. In ancient days, when women were required to stay home, this was a day they could go out and stroll or “visit boyfriends.” For this reason, it is also known as Chinese Valentines’ Day. The colorful lantern festival signifies the end of the Chinese New Year celebration for another year.

Enjoy the day and Gong Xi Fa Cai to all of you!

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