February 12th marked the beginning of Lunar New Year, the biggest holiday in most of Asia. We reached out to students to find out how they celebrate.
Note: Respondents that wished to remain anonymous are indicated with an asterisk (*)
Forget roosters†—when Chinese New Year comes around in China, firecrackers start popping at dawn. From LARGE extended (and extended-extended) family gatherings to copious spring cleaning to fabulous feasts of fish, noodles, dumplings, spring rolls, and niangao (glutinous rice cake), this fifteen-day holiday celebrates household deities, ancestors, and the New Year.
†Unless, of course, it is the Year of the Rooster. The Chinese Zodiac assigns an animal to each year in a repeating 12-year cycle. There are unique traits associated with people born in the year of each animal. This year we sent the Rat scampering on his wily ways and welcomed the year of the steady Ox. Renowned for their patience, people born in the Year of the Ox (1961, 1973, 1985, 1997, 2009, 2021) are reliable, fair, and strong.
According to Chinese legend, every new year a monster named Nian prowled the streets of ancient China, hunting for villagers to feed on. But it was scared of three things: the color red, fire, and noise. So each new year, villagers decked their houses in red, set off pyrotechnics, and banged as loudly as they could on their drums, discouraging the monster from ever coming back. Nian’s reign of terror was over at last!
These traditions are reflected today in many PJHS students’ Chinese New Year celebrations.
Michelle Wu, freshman
New Year is a busy time for the Wu family. Everyone took the day off and “put a little more effort into making dinner,” according to Michelle. Food takes center stage in the celebrations, “differing a little bit every year, but the main thing that's always at the table is rice cakes, sweet and salty. This year in particular we're gonna make a duck, whole fish, and other smaller side dishes.” –– added Chinese meatballs (狮子头 shi zi tou; direct translation is lion's head) to the menu. Although they don’t usually decorate, they will burn Chinese candles and receive lucky money in red envelopes from friends and family. Honoring their ancestors is the other major part of their holiday. “We usually pray to ancestors at home,” followed by a visit to a shrine upstate. During Covid, their gatherings have been just family, but when the pandemic is over, they’ll resume seeing friends during Lunar New Year for dinner and festivities.
For A*, New Year means serious celebration! A’s family sticks closely to traditional Chinese practices, with decorations, lucky money, and all the food imaginable. A main staple is hot pot, although this can change from year to year. Fai Chun, or a type of red banner inscribed with gold or black calligraphy, is hung around the house as decoration. Even though it's usually just close family celebrating, A always gets lucky money. And to top things off, they watch the CCTV New Year’s Gala, an annual production broadcasted by China Media Group since 1983.
In contrast, Iris’ family takes a more low-key approach. Gatherings are typically very small, and they come together over dumplings, a special dish. Decorations aren’t common, but lucky money is a must.
In the Yin family, Chinese New Year begins a day early, with her extended family in China phoning in to wish them “恭喜发财 万事如意!” (Wishing you good fortune and luck!). The last time she physically celebrated with them was when she was five. To this day she remembers running off to the supermarket daily to buy more sparklers that wouldn’t last the night.
Here, her family "generally just [has] fun together, which is something we don't usually do a lot during the school year because everyone's so busy.” They hang giant lanterns, 福 (Fu, or fortune) signs, couplet scrolls, and put on qipaos. As for food, they “usually [eat] traditional Chinese foods with Americanized dishes mixed in." During the Lantern Festival, or the fifteenth and ultimate day of the festival, they eat tangyuan, a special dessert made from glutinous rice served with different fillings and sauces.
Peggy's favorite family tradition is sharing her culture with her classmates. In elementary school, each year she and her dad would deck the classroom in red and teach the story of Nian and the Chinese Zodiac, as well as how to make crafts like papercutting art and lanterns—lanterns her classmates still remind her of today. Now she performs Chinese art and folk songs at many local, national, and international Chinese New Year festivals.
“It’s a time when people from all different cultures are unified in embracing, appreciating, and celebrating the biggest holiday in Chinese culture, and I think that harmony is something super special."
B* remembers being in China during New Year as well. “It’s the biggest holiday there and lasts many days. There is a big feast and red decorations!” At home, things are taken down a notch. They don't decorate, but they do dress in “traditional Chinese clothing, have dinner with traditional Chinese food, and give red packets.” As for food, “we have many traditional Chinese dishes with veggies, dumplings, and noodles!”
Lucas’ family puts quite a bit of effort into making things nice. A typical New Year’s meal consists of hot pot—a Chinese cooking method—and some Chinese dessert at the end.
Other traditions are more casual. “There aren’t really any [decorations] to speak of," he said. Gatherings are usually with a small group of family and friends, and he remembered that “we once gathered the whole extended family on the Chinese side around four years ago, where we just had a big family dinner.”
Similarly to Lucas, Lexi’s family focuses on the food. “We always make a sponge cake which is my favorite type of Chinese dessert, but other than that, we usually just make rice, chicken and broccoli, dumplings, and bok choy," she said. Although they don’t go “all out” for decorations, you will find “some red here and there” in the house.
Her celebrations are usually an intimate gathering with a few close relatives and friends. “It’s not really all that big because my mom’s side lives out of state. They celebrate a bit more than us because her dad is down there with young kids who find it very cool.” She and her friends receive lucky money from her parents in red envelopes.
Lunar New Year, or Tét in Vietnamese, throws the country into intense preparations beginning months in advance. Streets are lined with lights, decorations, and blossoming flowers (hoa mai). Food is very important, symbolizing prosperity, good luck, health, and fortune. Traditionally, old things are cast away and everyone receives a new set of clothes. Few urban citizens still carry out this practice, but dressing up for the holiday is common. The holiday lasts for a month, in which large extended families visit each other and feast. The nights are always filled with the racket of pyrotechnics exploding in the sky.
It can be hard to find the correct ingredients here, so family abroad helps out. During the first week of February, a package filled with all sorts of food and items from Vietnam arrives at Viviane's house. Vietnamese tradition plays a major role in determining the menu. Many foods are wrapped in common legend and storytelling traditions. According to popular belief, eating round-shaped foods helps “roll” away all the bad luck and fortune of last year and slip smoothly into the new one.
"We cook a lot in the week before New Year, so when the holiday comes, we won’t have to work as much. One dish my family always has on the stove is thịt kho, a pork and egg dish (think round food) served with rice or rolled in a rice wrapper."
Another must for the Kim family is Bánh tét, a savory sticky rice cake wrapped in banana leaves. Desserts vary, but Chè trôi nước, a sweet mung bean and rice ball (again round) in ginger syrup is a favorite, as well as Bánh bò, a light sponge cake served with coconut milk.
"At midnight, we pray to ancestors at a makeshift altar we constructed, with fruits, flowers, tea and often some food. We open the windows to let the spirits enter, and burn incense." Younger children receive lì xì, or lucky money, in red envelopes.
"Although our family doesn’t celebrate for the full month, the lanterns and hoa mai stick around a bit longer."
Friends and family all gather at D’s house for New Year. Food from many cultures and different soups are served in a spread. The family places a little shrine by the door, and prays to ancestors with incense. Other festivities involve doing a lion dance in costume, giving lì xì in red envelopes, and decorating the house in red.