Chinese New Year Traditions per the Van Family

Chinese New Year is almost upon us! Of all the Chinese festivals, this is probably the biggest and most elaborate tradition. Every country and every family celebrates it slightly differently so before we kickoff the year of the Rooster, I’ll give you a rundown on how the Van family celebrates Chinese New Year and what will be keeping me busy for a few days.

There are a lot of traditions: the Chinese are very superstitious and you want to start the year off right!

The entire house has to be swept, dusted, scrubbed from top to bottom. When you clean your home, it represents sweeping out any misfortunes from the prior year that may have accumulated in the home. Make sure not to leave any garbage in your home because you want to start the year fresh!

My family typically puts out some red banners (red is for prosperity) with auspicious phrases. You’ll see a lot of the character 福, which means blessings (pronounced “fok”). Here’s where I know there’s some disagreement. Depending on what dialect yous peak, you may interpret this differently. My family speaks Cantonese:

  • Some people believe you have to tape the word upside down; “fok doh” translates to “blessings have arrived,” but “doh” is another way to say upside down. Hence you want to flip your blessings so it arrives…?
  • Others believe believe you’re pouring out all your blessings if you flip it outside down because “fok dou”can mean “spilled blessings.”

It’s an interesting language…

It’s customary to get a new hair cut and buy new clothes for the first day of the New Year. If you’re rocking a new hair cut and snazzy red (for luck, obvi) clothes, the bad spirits from the prior year may not recognize you so those spirits won’t follow you into the new year.

Expect a lot of fish. The intonation for fish “yu” also means properity. The more fish you eat, the more prosperous you’ll be! There’s also this yummy sticky rice cake called “nian gao,” which sounds like the phrase “year high,” and generally equates to the promise of a better year ahead. The New Year’s Eve dinner is a big family reunion dinner.

As a kid, the best part of Chinese New Year is the money! You get a red envelope (“lai see”) from your married elderly relatives. Typically you “bai nian” by giving the adults auspicious phrases and in return the adults give children money that is believed to keep the kids healthy and lucky. For my parents, my sister and I pour tea (a sign of respect) for my parents before we say the auspicious phrases.

That’s my rundown of our version of Chinese New Year. What does your family typically do? I’m excited to see how Singaporeans celebrate Chinese New Year – an update to come!


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