Chinese New Year (CNY), also known as Lunar New Year or the Spring Festival marks the beginning of a new year according to the Lunar calendar. Many countries in Asia carrying Chinese cultural heritage follow this tradition.
People wearing red clothes attending massive family dinners with a variety of food and flavours is a sight you don’t want to miss. Best of all, are the grand displays of fireworks and red dragon dances livening up the mood for joyful and prosperous celebrations.
But before diving into the food, let’s find out how it all began.
The Mystical Beast – Nian
One of the most common legends and myths surrounding Chinese New Year follows a mystical creature named Nian (which means ‘year’) who began terrorising a village in China attacking people and eating livestock. Then one day a wise old man discovered Nian’s Achilles heel, which was loud noises, bright lights and the colour red.
Learning the monster’s weaknesses, the villagers began wearing red coloured clothes, placing lanterns outside their windows and setting off fireworks during the evening to fend off the mythical beast. People also began dancing on the streets and parading with a red dragon costume to bring power and good fortune to their village.
And that’s how CNY began and the birth of the Spring Festival. Now let’s get back to reality and explore the historical aspect of Lunar New Year.
Lunar Calendar and the Moon
Historical records place the origins of the CNY celebrations during the Shang Dynasty (1600 – 1046 BCE). Celebrations back then mainly consisted of less eating and more sacrificing to gods and ancestors.
When the Zhao Dynasty (1046 – 256 BCE) arrived, the Lunar calendar was also officially introduced. People called it the ‘Lunar calendar’ because the days that follow the orbit of the Moon around the Earth and Sun.
Unlike the Gregorian calendar that we’re used to, the Lunar calendar has a total of 354 days following a 12-month cycle and has a leap month every two to three years to keep in sync with the Gregorian calendar. Celebrations for CNY begins after the winter solace on a new moon and usually lands anytime between 21 January and 20 February.
These dates are always changing depending on the orbit of the Moon. This year, the 16-day celebration period of CNY begins on the Eve 31 January, continuing on New Year’s Day 1 February and all the way to the Lantern Festival on 15 February.
Another aspect of the Lunar calendar is the 12 Zodiac animals associated with every year. This year the Tiger is centre stage.
Finally, during the Wei Dynasty and Qing Dynasty (386 – 1911 ADE) CNY celebrations transitioned to being more social rather than the religious setting of the past. In comes the new and done with the old.
History lesson aside, let’s jump into the food!
Xin Nian Kuai Le (新年快乐)! – CNY Food and Activities
Celebrating CNY is fairly similar across the board in different countries. However, over time, families have developed their own unique way of celebrating the occasion making each experience more memorable than the last.
When greeting friends, relatives and family people often say Gong Hei Fat Choy (恭喜發財) which means ‘wishing you prosperity’ in Cantonese or Xin Nian Kuai Le (新年快乐) in Mandarin meaning ‘happy new year’.
Timothy Oon, a student from Malaysia living in Melbourne, recalls the busy and exciting days while celebrating Lunar New Year.
“My family would celebrate CNY by gathering at my uncle’s house the whole day and preparing home-cooked foods while socialising with relatives playing card games like blackjack,” Oon told The Fizzz.
Food plays a major part during CNY. Particular because each dish embodies meaning or symbolism granting the best wishes for the year ahead.
Steamed fish (yú, 鱼) is a common main course dish that symbolises prosperity. Serving this dish comes with a few instructions such as making sure the head of the fish is facing the eldest guests in the room who must eat first. It’s also common to serve the fish intact with the head and tail conveying the end and start of a new period.
Shun Ochi, a registered undergraduate student of nursing (RUSON) at Alfred Hospital from Singapore and Japan, recalls celebrating CNY growing up and seeing the Steam Fish meal being the centrepiece of the table.
“Steamed fish was a common dish that my family served during Chinese New Year, we usually ate it last before ending our meal,” Ochi told The Fizzz.
“One of the things we usually do is tossing the fish as high as we can for better fortune. As we toss the fish we say Huat Ah (发啊)!”
Some of the other commonly served meals during CNY include dumplings Jiǎozi, (饺子) meaning wealth, pork dishes relating to living a prosperous and abundant life, sweet rice balls Tāngyuán /tung-ywen (汤圆) symbolising reunion and bringing people together and also glutinous rice cakes Niángāo /nyen-gaoww (年糕) wishing everyone to have a good life and prosperous business.
After indulging in food and gathering all the wishes for the year, a common tradition during CNY is to give out red envelopes known as Ang Pao in Hokkien or Hong Bao in Mandarin. This gift represents blessings of good luck and fortune given to children, family, relatives and colleagues.
Each person receives a different amount depending on who they are and people receiving the Ang Pao’s must get it with both hands and bow.
“Married couples, parents and grandparents get the most. There are also rules on using crisp brand new bills from the bank to be put in the envelope. It plays a huge part during CNY,” Ochi said.
Let’s Celebrate CNY!
From old tales of a mystical creature to the orbital of the Moon, tossing Steamed Fish and the excitement of receiving an Ang Pao, celebrating CNY is a busy and exciting time for everyone.
Hugh Sing Leung is from Hong Kong and a third-year Physiotherapy student at La Trobe University in Melbourne and described to The Fizzz how he’s come to enjoy celebrating CNY every year with friends and family.
“I didn’t like CNY as a kid because it was too noisy with all the people and activities in restaurants and shopping malls. But growing up I realised it’s a great festival for bringing families and friends together,” Leung said.
Photo: Steam fish by raymondtan85 is available HERE and used under a creative commons license. The image has not been modified.
Photo: Dumplings by Ruocaled is available HERE and used under a creative commons license. The image has not been modified.