5 of my favorite things about celebrating the Lunar New Year in China.
5. Drinking Games
My first Lunar New Year in China I went to a friend’s parents’ home in Luzhou, Sichuan. I wasn’t sure how we’d spend three days given that my Chinese was limited and they don’t speak any English. Drinking games proved to be the great equalizer.
My favorite game was a version of Rock, Paper, Scissors. Instead of using the same objects, they had pole, worm, chicken and tiger. Yes, there’s four instead of three to keep us on our toes. Pole (like the bamboo ones vendors use to carry heavy loads on the streets) is eaten by worms. Worms are eaten by chickens who are eaten by tigers. The pole beats the tiger. Simple…now remember to say it in Chinese!
4. Eating Dumplings
Dumplings are my jam. I could eat them every meal, every day. I love making them and dipping them in little dishes of dark vinegar with freshly chopped raw garlic and spicy sesame oil. When my Chinese tutor makes them for me for lunch I always scream, “It’s like Thanksgiving!” to the delight of her 89- year old mother who thinks I’m crazy.
Dumplings are traditionally a Northern food, since it’s wheat based like noodles. In my small town, it’s extremely hard to find vegetarian ones, so I usually have to make them myself.
Traditional New Year’s foods have lots of symbolism depending on their pronunciation and shape. Round foods, like dumplings are supposed to represent either good fortune for the upcoming year or the circle of life depending on whom you ask. One year, my friend put the circular pits of a local fruit into 5 of the dumplings (some people use coins, but we thought this was cleaner). Whoever ate the dumpling with the pits in them got a 100 yuan prize. The kids loved the challenge and we all ate far too many.
3. Red Envelopes
Adults give red envelopes filled with money to children. The amount is very important and varies according to relationship, age etc. Parents might give their own kids 100 yuan, whereas grandparents might give 1000 yuan. A neighbor might give a small token amount like 10 or 20 yuan and aunts and uncles would give more.
Red, of course, is a lucky color in China so many people refer to the money in the envelopes as “lucky money”.
I shouldn’t like this tradition as much as I do, since as an adult it requires that I give money to all of my friends’ kids. Luckily for me, if you don’t earn an income you’re exempt from giving. Also, since I’m a foreigner, most people see me as a child (I certainly speak like one) and actually give me a small token amount so that I can share in the tradition. Thanks for the 16 yuan!
2. Ancestor Worshiping
Respect for the dead is a part of Chinese culture that I find truly elegant. From shrines in the home to lighting incense at temples, this is a culture that honors the departed. The New Year is a time to worship those who are no longer living by burning paper gifts including money for them to use in the afterlife. And yes, they might even give them the newest version of the iphone.
During the New Year you’ll often find smoldering ashes and the end of incense and candles along the sides of roads and in parks. Sometime you’ll also see offerings of fruit, rice and alcohol- make sure not to touch these.
Midnight on New Year’s Eve is the time to light off fireworks to scare away evil spirits for a healthy, safe start to the year. With more and more cities cutting out their elaborate fireworks displays due to government calls for less frivolous spending, families are now making up for the lack. Go to any park or riverside and watch families (and even children) lighting them off. With so many people participating, the noise and the smoke is all encompassing. It can be exciting- and even a bit scary.
It’s a definite for any Lunar New Year Celebration.