Celebrate Chinese New Year

Family, feasts, fireworks and festivities! We look at Lunar New Year traditions — and how you can get in on the action even if you aren’t in Asia.

Time to ring in the New Year… again! Also known as the Spring Festival or Lunar New Year, Chinese New Year is the highlight of the holiday calendar throughout Asia and a time for some serious celebrations.

Whether you’re at home or abroad, the feasts, parades and colourful traditions provide ample excuse to indulge in some tradition. Here’s a look at what’s happening.

Celebrations in China

If you’re lucky enough to be touring the country during this busy season, it won’t be hard to take in some culture. Customs and events vary across the many regions of the country, but you’ll find a mix of long-held traditions and some modern upgrades as well.

Before the celebrations get started, it’s customary to clean house to clear away bad fortune from the previous year. However, once the new year starts, families aren’t allowed to clean for a few days, otherwise they risk “sweeping away” their fortune. Debts should be repaid before the new year, and it’s a time for forgiveness and letting go of grudges.

The “Spring Festival” certainly lives up to its name when it comes to décor. Homes are traditionally decorated with vases of flowers — whose blooms symbolize wealth and career status because blossoms come before the fruit. Speaking of which, you’ll find plenty of sweetness as well. Plates of oranges or tangerines also adorn homes to symbolize abundance, and a plate of candied fruit with a variety of items representing different kinds of good fortune like health or long life, is laid out for the celebrations. Wherever you go, you’ll see cut-outs and streamers with the year’s zodiac sign and good wishes for the new year.

This year — the Year of the Monkey — officially starts on Feb. 8. As with any new year, the celebrations get underway the night before. Think of it as Christmas and New Year’s Eve all rolled into one: it’s a time for family gatherings over sumptuous meals and staying up all night to see in the new year. It’s a chance for families to reunite and honour their ancestors. You won’t find turkey on the table, but fish, chicken, lo hon jai (a popular vegetarian dish) and uncut noodles (for long life) will likely be among the choices. Don’t turn your nose up at a raw fish salad — it will also bring you luck.

Like many countries, there’s a traditional food to enjoy at midnight as well. Plates heaped high with jiao zi (dumplings) grace every table. Some say it’s because they look like ancient money while others say they’re little packets of luck, but either way this tasty treat represents wealth and prosperity for the year ahead. When the clock strikes twelve, many families will pause to open the doors and windows to “let out” the past year.

Not surprisingly, fireworks displays at midnight often draw crowds. In the past, they were thought to scare away demons — but now people simply enjoy the pyrotechnics.

During the next two weeks, each day has special meaning and customs. For example, the first day of the year is a time to welcome the Gods of Heaven and Earth. Many people stick to long-held beliefs like not using knives (for fear of cutting off good fortune) and shunning meat to ensure a long life. It’s another day for family gatherings, especially for visiting older generations. Over the next couple of days, married women will visit their parents and husbands will honour their in-laws. Many families will take time to pray to their ancestors and the Gods.

However, don’t be offended if no one wants to socialize on the fifth day. Tradition dictates it’s time to stay home and wait for a visit from the God of Wealth. Go visiting and you’ll not only have bad luck, you’ll spread it to your hosts. During the next week, there’s plenty of time to visit with family and friends before the festival’s big send off. The tenth to twelve nights in particular are a time for inviting friends over for a lighter meal.

Of course, the celebrations aren’t all at home. Even outside major cities like Beijing or Shanghai, you’ll find a jam-packed schedule full of fairs, bazaars, martial arts demonstrations, historical re-enactment, more fireworks displays and Chinese cuisine. Dragon and lion dances are a popular sight not to be missed.

However, one of the most colourful parts of the festival is the closing — the Lantern Festival which celebrates the first full moon. You’ll find one of the biggest celebrations at the Yuyuan Garden in Shanghai.

How can you see all this as a traveller? Look for events at major city centres and parks — they won’t be hard to find! Some travel companies even offer packages that pair visitors with local families for an authentic experience. You can help shop, decorate, prepare the meals and enjoy the fruits of your labour.

Of course, China isn’t the only country to throw a big party — variations of these events are held throughout Asia as well. You’ll also find Chinese New Year celebrations across other continents in major cities like Brazil, London, Paris and Sydney, and in many locales that have a Chinese community.

NEXT: Ways to Celebrate Closer to Home

Ways you can celebrate closer to home

While we don’t get a national holiday to celebrate the occasion, there are plenty of ways to celebrate in Canada and the U.S. And no, you won’t have to miss work — many of the events take place on the weekend instead. What are some ways you can get involved?

Attend a festival. Many areas offer a wide range of events for the whole family like traditional dance demonstrations, fireworks displays and banquets. There is a lot to see — like Vancouver’s annual Chinese New Year Parade.

Check out your local museum or cultural centre. You never know where you’ll find themed events and educational fare.

Help a good cause. Enjoy some culture and tasty morsels at a local fundraiser, like the Yee Hong Community Wellness Foundation’s Dragon Ball in Toronto.

Dine out. Many ethnic restaurants get all dolled up for the occasion with special menu items, decorations and live entertainment like music and traditional dance troupes.

Dine in. Whether it’s a potluck, dinner party or dinner for two, use the occasion to try some new recipes. There’s no shortage of choices on recipe websites, and don’t forget dumplings are the must-have food! (For more ideas, see Flavourful Chinese New Year fare

Learn a new skill. Look for workshops and classes that teach traditional arts, like calligraphy, lantern making and cooking.

Give a gift. During Chinese New Year, it’s a custom to give children gifts of money in red envelopes. The colour — not to mention the influx of cash — signals prosperity.

Where can you find out what’s going on? Unfortunately, many community-based events never make it to the events search engines. Instead, try:

– Your local tourism bureau, chamber of commerce or city event’s calendar.

– If you live in a large city with a Chinatown, watch for events in the neighbourhood too.

– Local museums, libraries and cultural centres.

– Churches and cultural organizations.

– Restaurants and markets.

Whether you go all-out with the celebrations or opt for something simple like wearing red, Chinese New Year can be a great opportunity to learn more about Chinese culture and history. You don’t have to go across the world to enjoy the festivities — but they may be a welcome addition to your bucket list!

Sources: About.com, CBC News feature, GlobalGourmet.com, local events guides, tourism board websites, Q++ World Public Holidays, University of Victoria website, What’s On When.