Today marks the start of the Chinese New Year celebration, which marks the end of winter and the beginning of spring.
This new year is especially auspicious, because it marks the kickoff of the Year of the Dragon. People born in the Year of the Dragon (1928 * 1940 * 1952 * 1964 * 1976 * 1988 * 2000 and 2012) are said to be blessed with good fortune, authority, and vibrant good health.
Every year, the new year festival is a time for family reunions, for honoring ancestors and for thanking the gods for their blessings.
Always on the lookout for another reason to celebrate with food, of particular interest to us is the biggest event of any Chinese New Year: the New Year’s dinner. This meal is a big family feast, much like the sit-down family Christmas dinner in the West.
In northern provinces of China, families make Jiao zi dumplings and Jao gok potstickers after the New Year’s Eve dinner to be eaten around midnight. Dumplings symbolize wealth because their shape resembles a Chinese coin. By contrast, in the Southern parts of China, it is customary to make a glutinous new year cake called Nian gao (recipe here), which literally means “new year cake,” but is a homophone (sound-alike) for a phrase meaning “increasingly prosperous year in year out”.
Chinese New Year is celebrated (duh) throughout China, and in other countries with significant Chinese populations, like Hong Kong, Macau, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia and the Phillippines. Some countries celebrate the New Year for only two or three days, but the traditional Chinese New Year lasts for fifteen whole days!
If you like the idea of two weeks of festival and feasting (and seriously, who doesn’t?), here is a rough outline of activities for each day of Chinese New Year:
Day one: welcoming the deities of the heavens and earth. Many people, especially Buddhists, abstain from meat consumption on this day; the thought is that this will ensure longevity. (Here is a recipe for the special New Year’s dish Buddha’s Delight – it is delicious). Lighting fires and using knives are viewed as bad luck on New Year’s Day, so whatever you’re going to eat should be cooked the days before. On this day, it is considered bad luck to clean.
Day Two: married daughters visit their parents, relatives and close friends. It is also the God of Wealth’s birthday, and the birthday of all dogs, who get special treats.
Day Three: The third day is known as chì kǒu, meaning “red mouth”, or chì gǒu rì meaning “the God of Blazing Wrath.” Can you guess? With “blazing wrath” in the name, this day is not a good day to socialize or visit your relatives and friends.
Day Four: Where the Chinese New Year only goes for 2-3 days, the fourth day is a return to work, and a day for special corporate “spring dinners.”
Day Five: In northern China, people eat jiǎo zi dumplings on this morning of Po Wu. People will shoot off firecrackers on this day, to try to get Guan Yu’s (the Chinese God of War’s) attention, to ensure favor and good fortune this year.
Day Six: Taiwanese businesses traditionally re-open on the sixth day, accompanied by firecrackers.
Seventh Day: traditionally known as rénrì, the common man’s birthday, the day when everyone grows one year older. (No more remembering troublesome dates! Everybody’s birthday is the same day!)
Tossed raw fish salad, yusheng, is eaten for continued wealth and prosperity today. For many Chinese Buddhists, however, this is another day to avoid meat, the seventh day commemorating the birth of Sakra, a Buddhist figure who is analogous to the Jade Emperor.
Eighth Day: *Another* family dinner is held, to celebrate the birth of the Jade Emperor. On this day, many business owners will host a lunch/dinner with their employees, thanking their employees for the work they have done for the whole year.
Ninth Day: a day for Chinese to offer prayers to the (Taoist) Jade Emperor of Heaven, a day that is especially important to Hokkiens (traditionally from the Chinese Fujian province). Incense, tea, fruit, vegetarian food – or roast pig – is served.
Day Ten: more celebrating the Jade Emperor’s party.
Eleventh-Twelfth Day: Are you tired of celebrating yet? Hang on — friends and family are invited for dinners on these evenings.
Thirteenth Day: people will eat simple vegetarian foods on the 13th day, to make a fresh start, and recuperate from consuming so much rich food over the last two weeks. (Think of this like Americans’ eating habits on January 1 and 2). This day is dedicated to the Han dynasty General Guan Yu, sometimes called the Chinese God of War. He represents loyalty, strength, truth, and justice, and he is regarded also as the God of Wealth.
Fifteenth Day: a big, sparkling finish to the long celebrations with Yuan Xiao, the Lantern Festival. Rice dumplings called tangyuan, brewed in a soup, are eaten this day. Candles are lit outside houses as a way to guide wayward spirits home. This day is celebrated as the Lantern Festival, and families walk the street carrying lighted lanterns.