This week marks my second Chinese New Year celebrated in China (or at all, really). This year, however, was a little different:
Chinese New Year and my birthday fell on the same date.
All of my friends in China said I am the luckiest girl in the world! All I could think about was how I was missing out on my grandma’s sour cream cake.
Traditionally, Chinese don’t celebrate birthdays the same (big) way we do in America. Also, everyone Im living in a big, migrant city, so everyone I know went home to celebrate the New Year for 2-3 weeks. So I decided to go with the flow and ditch the idea of a big birthday celebration. I did it low key, by splitting a bottle of champagne with a friend before the midnight fireworks.
But first, we spent the entire day celebrating the Year of the Monkey.
First, I want to give a brief lesson on what the Chinese New Year is and why it’s so important. This was all news to me, so maybe it is to you, too. The story varies, but is generally told like this:
A long time ago, China was full of small villages. The night before the New Year, the people believed there was a monster named “Nian” that would descend on the village on the 1st day of every new year, eating all the food, livestock and even children, should they be left outside. It was a time of terror.
An old man once came to the village and asked “Why are you scared of Nian? He surely cannot eat all of you.” Still, they were too scared to go out, and boarded themselves up in their houses. The old man protected them from Nian that night; Nian did not come.
Eventually it was found out that the old man was a god, but he needed to return to his duties in another place. He couldn’t protect them anymore. So the old man told the villagers that Nian was scared of the color red, loud noises, or strange creatures. So all of the people decorated their houses with red, wore red, and went outside, loudly celebrating and letting off fireworks. Nian didn’t return.
The people were so happy. Now every year they celebrate the “guo nian”, the passing of the old year to the new year, or the passing of the monster. The people are very happy to gather together, to live, celebrate, and share the “lucky money” with each other.
Lucky “year of the monkey” money hanging from a tree
In modern China, Chinese New Year is like Christmas and New Year’s in the US, but all wrapped into one holiday. It’s the one time every year where the entire family gathers together and eats, drinks, and exchanges gifts. It’s the children’s time to give back to their parents, and the family’s time to honor the ancestors. It’s a time to celebrate the prosperity of the past year, and look forward to good fortune in the next.
They also let off a lot of fireworks all week; the Chinese invented them, after all!
My friend Landon (see above) from Genie Supply invited me to celebrate the New Year with his family. We headed to his parent’s home around noon, where everyone was already getting prepared for the “guo nian”–the coming of the new year.
His family had already prepared food for the ancestors. They burned candles in his grandfather’s ashes and placed the food before them. The son (Landon) was asked by the family to kneel before the ancestors and ask for good luck, by bowing repeatedly and waving foiled paper.
When the candles had burned out, they began taking the dishes one by one and chopping them up into small pieces to eat. Landon’s mother started bringing out dishes for dinner. His siblings exchanged red envelopes (full of lucky money!) and gifts. They even had gifts prepared for me: chocolates, tea, lipstick, and lots of cookies.
We enjoyed the day together, relaxing, talking, and playing outside.
For our dinner, we ate hot pot as a family. Hot pot is very popular in China, and a great, relaxed way to eat “family style”. Seafood is very popular as we are nearby the south China sea, so we really had a mixed hotpot. We ate fish, octopus, chicken, all types of meatballs, different shrimp dumplings, and an array of vegetables: lettuce, spinach, sweet potato leaves, raddicio, golden mushrooms and more. The sauces are always my favorite part. They also served red wine–an imported delicacy in China.
Although we all know about the 1 child rule in China, it’s actually common for families to have multiple children–especially Teochew families, like Landon’s. It was hard to fit the 9 of us around one table!
After dinner, we drank Puerh Tea–very expensive and indigienous to Chao Zhou, their hometown–and ate oranges. We talked and even danced a little, and waited for the New Year to come.
China is full of rich history and tradition. From my experience, Chinese New Year is becoming more and more of a commerical holiday (like Christmas or Thankgiving in the states), but the holidays still holds onto a lot of tradition.
The most important takeaway for me was that in modern China, Chinese New Year is about gathering together as a family and appreciating your time together. They take off up to a month for this holiday, and they make sure they do it right.
I can really appreciate the emphasis on slowing down and putting family first in this busy world.
So, all the way from China, I’d like to say..