It’s beautiful to see Chinese New Year become a global celebration with deeply rooted cultural symbolism that plays out in the art of food, dance and décor.
This lush event marks a time to honor ancestors and deities, focus on and set intentions for the year ahead and create opportunities to spend time with family. What you do during the time of celebration is believed to affect the coming year, so it’s wise to include symbols reflecting what you desire—such as prosperity, wealth, happiness, health and fertility.
Mark Your Calendar
The New Year begins on the first day of the Chinese lunar calendar—the second new moon after the winter solstice. This date varies each year between January and February. Celebrations start Chinese New Year’s Eve and continue to the Lantern Festival on the 15th day of the first month.
Chinese New Year 2016 begins on February 8 and ends on February 22. The Chinese lunar calendar is associated with the Chinese zodiac and has 12 distinct animal signs: Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, Pig, Rat and Ox. 2016 will honor the year of the Monkey.
How to Celebrate
For an exquisite Chinese New Year celebration, follow these insightful suggestions and welcome 2016 with panache and purpose.
Incorporate the traditional art and entertainment to set the scene for your celebration. Red is considered an auspicious color representing good fortune, and it appears in everything from decorations to undergarments.
The traditional red lanterns were adopted 500 years ago around the time of Buddha’s ascension, and their practical function has since evolved into artistic expression. Typically they come in red and gold with designs of nature, the Fú character, fish and the zodiac animals. Symbolically they represent a bright new year, a path out of darkness and create a festive backdrop for your celebration.
The mythological demon serpent Nian, which according to folklore once ravaged villages, has influenced many artistic expressions—from dragon and lion dancing to the loud drums, clanging cymbals and deafening firecrackers used to ward off evil spirits. Consider hiring a dance troupe to perform at your event. There are many sources online, or work with a trusted event planner in your area.
Decorate dragon or thematic cookies and get creative by making your own red lanterns. Order appropriate party goods online that include plenty of red and gold colors. (We suggest the firecrackers and DIY lanterns from chinasprout.com.) You can also find other great decorating and craft ideas at local Asian markets or on YouTube and Pinterest.
Gifts are given to send good wishes and to pass on good luck in the coming year. The traditional red envelopes, called hongbao, are filled with a small denomination of crisp new bills and given to children and retired or aging adults. The envelopes are considered good luck, along with the contents. Red envelopes are typically given by married people to those who are not married, although parents may give them to their married children.
Some gifts, such as sharp objects, should not be given, as they represent cutting off a relationship. And don’t wrap gifts in black or white, as those colors are associated with death and funerals. Use two hands to give or receive a gift and generally only open received ones in private. Gift-giving traditions run deep in Chinese culture, so do a little research before giving one as to not offend.
A bounty of meats, fish and vegetables are served when families gather for the Reunion Dinner. The number of courses is often associated with the lucky number eight. Different regions vary in what they serve and the way they celebrate Chinese New Year, yet certain foods are eaten because of the symbolic meaning based on their name, pronunciation or appearance.
Themes of happiness, prosperity, luck, fertility and longevity are also played out in the meal. To fully enjoy this part of the celebration, have guests prepare or purchase a dish and reveal the symbolism associated with it to the dinner guests.
Fish is served whole to represent completeness or wholeness. The pronunciation of “fish” in Chinese is a homophone meaning abundance and affluence or surplus, depending on the type of fish. Whole fish should not be fully consumed, so as to leave some for the coming year. The head of the fish is often pointed toward the distinguished guest, who would eat first.
Aside from its deliciousness and growing popularity, legend suggests that the more dumplings you consume, the more abundance and good fortune you will have in the coming year. The shape of the dumpling (Jiaozi) resembles a silver or gold ingot. Symbolic gestures, such as adding a peanut to dumplings, mean a long life for the person who receives it.
Consider a dumpling-making party with family or friends to kick off the New Year. Play with unique flavor combinations and print photo tutorials for guests to follow—or start with a short demo.
Spring rolls represent the spring’s bounty and are slightly flattened on top to look like a gold bars.
“Longevity” or long noodles represent a long life. So don’t cut them before eating! Long leafy greens and long beans can also be served whole to represent a long life.
Tangerines, mandarins and oranges are displayed around the home to represent continued prosperity and status. But don’t group them in fours, which would be considered unlucky. Pomelos also represent prosperity. Fruit is presented whole with leaves and stems.
Poultry such as duck or chicken is served whole, typically including the head and feet. Peking duck may seem challenging to make, yet we found a great tutorial on seriouseats.com from the Food Lab. Give it a try or order it in advance from a Chinese restaurant. It’s delicious and a special treat to add to your feast.
A “Togetherness” Tray with eight separate compartments is filled with dried fruits and sweets and displayed for guests, symbolizing a sweet life.
Sweet rice balls (Tang Yuan) are associated with being together and reuniting.
Do your research on superstitions, traditions and symbolism. Red—the symbol of fire, energy, happiness and good luck—is believed to ward off evil spirits and bad fortune. Never wear black, which is associated with death. Clean the house to rid it of bad luck, but not on New Year’s Day, as you would be sweeping away your wealth. Also be sure to pay off debts, repair broken relationships and make amends.
Set your intention for the New Year, a practice similar to New Year resolutions. It is tradition to stay up late on New Year’s Eve to welcome in the New Year. Open windows and doors at midnight to usher out the old year. Be sure to share stories, traditions and symbolism with your guests.
No party is complete without a few games. Organize a station with big to small items that can be picked up with chopsticks, or ask guests to create a hand-made dragon or red lantern. Lantern riddles also are a popular part of a celebration that brings people together. Just add a thought-provoking riddle to each lantern. (YouTube offers some fun tutorials on making dragons and lanterns.)
Not throwing a party yourself? Celebrate with other revelers at a special event. San Francisco has one of the largest celebrations of Chinese New Year outside Asia. For more on this expansive event, visit sftourismtips.com/chinese-new-year-san-francisco.html.
In Southern California, Terranea Resort is offering a Chef’s Table Dinner Series on February 8. Ideal for celebrating with friends, clients and loved ones, this series offers the perfect setting for a one-of-a-kind dining experience. Seating is limited; tickets are $240+ per person and must be purchased in advance. For more information go to terranea.com.
Whether you plan your own celebration or attend a local parade, festival or dinner, Happy New Year or Kung Hei Fat Choy. May you have good fortune in 2016!
Special thanks to Nancie McDermott for providing cultural context. (nanciemcdermott.com)
Written and photographed by Kara Mickelson