Chinese New Year

By Athena Kung, third year Geography student

Kung Hei Fat Choi(恭喜发财)! It’s the one phrase you hear over and over during Chinese New Year (CNY). As a kid, I always thought the term meant ‘Happy New Year’, but it’s actually a greeting, bestowing great happiness and prosperity upon the recipient. I suppose, in a nutshell, that is what CNY is about – spending time with family and friends, with lots and lots of good food (happiness), followed by the receiving of red envelopes for children and the unmarried (prosperity!). But there’s so much more to CNY, and given it’s coming up next week, I figured I would try and demystify it a bit.

What is CNY, and why is it different every year? CNY is a festival celebrating the beginning of the new year on the lunar calendar, the calendar which traditional Chinese festivals follow. The lunar calendar is based on the monthly cycles of the Moon’s phases. It’s different to the Gregorian calendar, a solar calendar system based directly on the solar year.

for my family, it’s a week of meeting lots and lots of people

But what really goes on during CNY? Like any other festival, it varies from family to family, but for my family, it’s a week of meeting lots and lots of people (and getting rich in the process – more on that later!). However, before CNY begins, there’s quite a bit we have to do in preparation. Firstly, we’ll clean the house from top to bottom. This is to get rid of the bad luck and make way for all the incoming good luck in the New Year. On the night before CNY, we’ll make our beds with new bedding (and then I’m not allowed to sit on my bed or my mom gets super angry at me), and also put up spring scrolls (the long scrolls with Chinese blessings written on it). We’ll also visit the night market once everything is in order for the new year, and my mom will buy flowers for our house, as this symbolises luck and prosperity.

Chinese New Year market stall selling flowers
Chinese New Year market selling tangerines – a lucky food representing wealth!

Then, on the first few days of CNY, we’ll spend it visiting relatives – one day with dad’s side, the next day with mom’s side, and the day after with distant relatives. In Chinese culture, it’s important to always respect your elders, and this extends to CNY visits too. As my parents aren’t the eldest sibling in their family, we’ll go to their eldest sibling’s house to pay our respects to them during the New Year. We’ll also bring some gifts (i.e. food and tea) along with us, to further show and pay our respects to our elders. CNY then becomes a great time to catch up with family – everyone is there for the festivities – and we celebrate the new year over amazing food, and even better company.

Also, in every house you’ll find a box filled candies, nuts, and seeds. Upon arriving at your hosts’ house, they’ll offer you some sweets from their candy box, as this represents the putting of fortune (in the form of candy) together in one place (the box), thereby symbolising the bringing of luck and blessings together, for the year ahead. Thus, CNY becomes the only time during the year children are encouraged to have sweets, as it’s linked to having more prosperity in the upcoming year!

it was believed using the broom would entail the ‘sweeping away’ of good fortune

When we get back home on the first day of CNY, it’s important to not take the trash out, and not clean the house either. Traditionally, it was believed using the broom would entail the ‘sweeping away’ of good fortune. More traditional families will also abstain from cooking and using knives on the day, as both acts are considered to bring bad luck, as you’re ‘cutting’ or ‘burning’ away the luck. Thankfully, my mom doesn’t make us follow these superstitions, or I would be so hungry.

For children and unmarried adults, the best part about CNY is arguably getting lots and lots of red packets! Red packets are given to children and unmarried adults as blessings by relatives and those who are married. Some children get to keep their red packets and use the money however they wish, while some children never see it again, with the money supposedly put into their bank account for ‘safekeeping’. But, before you receive the red packets, Aunties and Uncles will wait for you to say some blessings to them first, before they give you their blessings, and the red packet. So, if you ever find yourself celebrating CNY, saying ‘Kung Hei Fat Choi’ to Aunties and Uncles is a good way to start!

CNY also means seeing red everywhere – clothes, decorations, red packets. Red connotes wealth and prosperity in Chinese culture and is often accompanied by gold and yellow (more wealth and prosperity!). In Hong Kong, everywhere you go, you’ll find yourself surrounded by decorations – lanterns, flowers and spring scrolls (those big long scrolls with Chinese blessings written on it). Putting up all these red decorations is believed to scare away the evil dragon, Nian (he’s this mythical dragon that comes out of his cave during the beginning of CNY, and eats villagers because food is scarce in winter. No, I’m not making this up). It’s also common to see lion dances everywhere – it’s said that lion dances help to scare away Nian as well.

My friend’s spring scrolls
Lion dance

As though decorations everywhere aren’t extravagant enough, you’ll also hear firecrackers being set off, especially if you’re near a village. Again, this is believed to scare off bad luck, as well as Nian. In the evening, there will usually be a firework display; in Hong Kong, our fireworks are against the backdrop of the Victoria Harbour, Hong Kong’s famous skyline.

After the initial few days of CNY, my family will then spend time with family friends. We’ll find ourselves on hikes, visiting Hong Kong’s smaller islands, and still eating lots. It’s a chance for my sister and I to meet up with Aunties and Uncles we don’t usually get to see, and a chance for my parents to catch up with their friends. And of course, for my sister and I, we get more red packets! It’s a win-win for everyone!

As my CNY break from school was only a week long, I would have to go back to school when the rest of the city was still celebrating. But just because school started, it didn’t mean CNY stopped there. We would sometimes have dinners after school and continue meeting up with more of our parents’ friends. I still remember during my last CNY in Hong Kong, I pulled my first all-nighter following a CNY dinner, as I had a field trip report due the next day (I’m still surprised I didn’t pass out from a food coma after the dinner).

There’s a lot that goes on during CNY, but hopefully I’ve managed to demystify it a bit. The festival is all about spending time with friends and family and celebrating the new year. It’s been two years since I’ve spent CNY at home, and this year will be my third. It’s bittersweet missing out on what happens at home, but equally, the new ways I’ve been celebrating CNY since coming to Durham have brought me a lot of joy too – I can’t imagine spending CNY in Durham without the company of my amazing friends.

Anyway, Kung Hei Fat Choi! May the Year of the Pig bring you good health, prosperity, and lots of joy!

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