The New Year is celebrated in almost every culture as a new beginning and a declaration of renewed promises. But in the Chinese culture, the New Year is by far the most important holiday of the entire year — it signifies the beginning of spring and is the most celebrated day of the year.
On Chinese New Year’s Day, based on the lunisolar calendar, families clean and decorate their houses to symbolize preparing for the new year’s good fortunes. At night, relatives and neighbors come together for a reunion dinner, where they feast on delicacies like Peking duck and sticky cake. Meanwhile, parades, firework shows, and other forms of entertainment crowd the streets. The next morning, children receive presents of money wrapped in special red envelopes. Red, thought to be the color of happiness, shades all aspects of the festivities, from the clothes to the firecrackers.
But these traditions don't just occur in China. Slight variations on these Chinese New Year practices take place all around the world, indicating the reach of Chinese culture. Let’s take a tour:
During the 13th and 14th centuries, the Yuan dynasty expanded Chinese reach to unprecedented heights — beyond even the confines of China today. One area they expanded to was Malaysia, whose population is still 25% Chinese. Malaysians celebrate the New Year with a signature raw-fish salad called yee sang. The entire family helps to toss the salad with their chopsticks, and the myth goes that the higher the salad is tossed, the better your fortunes in the coming year. They also have a special tradition of gifting live orange trees.
Chinese boats reached the Philippines well before the 15th century and Chinese New Year has been an established holiday there for centuries. Large parades of dancing lions and dragons, long puppets held up by multiple people, can all be found in the Philippines. People leave red packets of money and treats called ang pao near their door for the dancers to pick up as they prance down the street.
Though Chinese immigrants have lived in Indonesia for hundreds of years, the Chinese are only 4% of the population and have been severely oppressed. Even today, the Chinese still live in isolated areas. They only gained the right to celebrate their culture – and by extension, Chinese New Year – in 1998 when the oppressive leader Suharto resigned. In 2002, Chinese New Year was made an official holiday and today, it is celebrated by paying off all debts, keeping healthy live plants around the house, and serving whole fish to symbolize abundance.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Qing dynasty began long-distance sailing to trade with other empires. On their way, they ran into the beautiful island of Mauritius, where they set up pagodas and settlements. Mauritian Chinese New Year’s celebrations abide by particular superstitions, (such as not to use knives or scissors on that day) and setting off fireworks to drive away evil spirits.
Chinese immigration in America soared in the mid-1800s when gold was discovered in the West and construction of the transcontinental railroad began. Due to the intense discrimination they faced, Chinese immigrants often lived in specific areas of towns that have become today’s Chinatowns. New Year celebrations take place on grand scales, with giant parades of lion dancers, traditional music performances, street markets, Chinese calligraphy exhibits, fashion shows, martial arts demonstrations, and increasingly, cultural awareness campaigns.
To those of you who have never experienced this amazing festival, there's sure to be one in your area. And to those of you eagerly awaiting February 10: Xin Nian Kuai Le!