A Guide to Some Things You've Never Understood About Chinese New Year

I get asked a lot of questions this time of year. Here are the basics explained to the best of my ability

What exactly is Chinese New Year?

It is the most major holiday of the year. It is basically Thanksgiving, Christmas and every birthday rolled into one. (I’m not even joking about the birthdays – the 7th day of Chinese New Year is known as “Everybody’s Birthday” and is celebrated with a big dinner.) It is a time to be spent with family. For many people in China, it is the only time of the year where they get enough days off to make the journey home to their families.

Have you seen the recent pictures of the Chinese making treacherous journeys back to their villages the past few days? Chinese New Year is known as the World’s Biggest Annual Human Migration – according to China’s National Development and Reform Commission, over 3.623 billion trips will be made within the next two weeks. Entire trains have sold out in seconds (including standing space in the bathrooms). People have been resorting to cheating, fighting and black markets to snag a ticket. It’s not pretty.

But it’s the most important holiday of the year and mom expects you home no matter what and so you go. And so you carry that importance of family and reunion with you to America. And so I am stuck with my family all weekend.

What the Deal with Year of the Horse?

It's actually, technically, the year of the Wood Horse.

Horses are energetic and wood will help fuel the flames of the beast. Wood is also rigid and firm so people are going to be more stubborn than usual. Basically, it’s going to be a wild year for everyone. (At least this is what the astrologers on the Chinese radio are saying.)

What happens?

It’s really just a lot of eating of traditional lucky foods and a lot of Mahjong. My aunts will probably play Mahjong from 2pm to, oh, 2pm the next day!

Tomorrow, we all go to my maternal grandmother's. “We” as in all 6 of her kids, their spouses and all 8 of her grandkids (to her dismay, all without spouses). See, according to Chinese custom, you get red envelopes filled with money (hung bao) until you are married – at which point it is your turn to give out (and not receive) said red envelopes. I think our elders didn’t expect to be giving all of us red envelopes well into our thirties.

Sunday, we will go to my paternal aunt’s house – same headcount on dad's side.

All weekend long will be spent saying many chinese phrases that we don’t understand to our elders to "earn" the red envelopes:

Gung hay faht choy (Wishing you prosperity)

Sun neen fye lok (Happy New Year)

Lung ma jing sung (Wishing you the spirit equivalent to a dragon and a horse)

Sum seung see sing (May all your dreams come true)

Poon moon boot moon (May you have so much money you can’t fit it in your bucket)

What do you eat?

You probably don’t want most of what I will be eating. We eat these foods because they are symbolic and homonyms for lucky phrases. Sample menu: trotter and eggs braised in ginger and vinegar, dried black moss and dried oysters, a boney carp fish flown in from China, and glutinous rice cake that is often dry, too sweet and dyed a weird shade of red.

If you really want to eat something Chinese New Year, go with dumplings – they represent satchels of fortune.

Why is it not on January first?

Well, it is. Only this year, January 1 on the Chinese lunar calendar falls on January 31 of the solar calendar (the one most of the rest of the world operates on). Very basically, the lunar calendar goes by how long it takes for the moon to lap the earth – 29.5 days – and the solar calendar goes by how long it takes the earth to lap the sun – 365 days. So, it’s really apples to oranges. Most Chinese holidays go by the lunar calendar because the Chinese have been around forever and that’s the calendar they used to go by.

How long is New Years?

15 days, technically, though only observed for the first few in most places

How can I celebrate?

You can go to any Chinatown this Sunday to see dragons and seas of people wearing red. Why Sunday? Because Chinese New Year is on a Friday and people have to work.

If you don’t like crowds or don’t live near a Chinatown, you can practice some Feng Shui. Most Chinese homes are feng-shui-ed out during the New Year. Try:

Putting out a bowl of mandarin oranges: The Chinese word for these golden treasures is a homonym for “prosperity and good fortune” 

Wearing red: It’s just a luck color.

Hiding all sharp objects: You wouldn’t want to “shred” someone’s good fortune into pieces.

Give out candy: This is a symbol of starting the New Year on a sweet note.

Buy flowers (preferably red, but never ever white): Flowers symbolize vitality…except when they are white. White flowers are only for dead or people mourning the dead.

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