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Chinese New Year Traditions and the Year of the Dragon

by Jeanette on January 21, 2012 · 30 Comments
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Chinese New Year

Good Luck Oranges and Hung Bao for Chinese New Year

Monday, January 23, 2012, is officially Chinese New Year – Happy Year Of The Dragon! Although I was born in the U.S. and have yet to visit China, I try to share some Chinese traditions with my kids (they sometimes call me Tiger Mom – I’m sure they’re just kidding, right guys?!). One of the traditions that we’ve celebrated since my boys were young is Chinese New Year. Although I think they go along with it for the “hung bao” (red packets of money that children receive from adults), I’m hoping they will have a little bit of appreciation for the Chinese culture.

I actually learned more about Chinese New Year traditions when my boys were in preschool because I volunteered to read Chinese New Year stories and bring in homemade fortune cookies (which are not Chinese but are fun for the kids), fried rice and “hung bao” for the class.  In the Chinese culture, Chinese New Year is the biggest holiday of the year. In fact, it is celebrated for fifteen days, starting with the new moon on the first day of the first lunar month (of the year according to the lunar calendar) and ending fifteen days later when there is a full moon,  culminating with the Lantern Festival.

Some of the traditions leading up to Chinese New Year include cleaning the house thoroughly to sweep away any bad luck, getting haircuts, and paying off debts to start the New Year fresh,  and decorating the house with red paper cutouts of Chinese auspicious phrases and couplets with themes of good fortune, happiness, wealth and longevity. Often these red decorations are hung upside down, symbolizing the arrival of fortune and spring. On New Year’s Eve, a big feast is served with an assortment of dishes, all with symbolic meanings. During the fifteen day period, everyone visits friends and relatives to wish them Happy New Year, “Xin Nian Kuai Le,” (Mandarin Chinese) or “Gun Hay Fat Choy,” (Cantonese Chinese), and children receive red packets of money (“hung bao”). Only pleasant words are exchanged.

There are twelve animals that rotate through the Chinese Zodiac over a 12-year cycle – the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and pig. This year is the Year of the Dragon, considered to be the most powerful sign in Chinese astrology. According to Chinese astrology, people born in the Year of the Dragon are powerful and wise. They’re driven, passionate, free-spirited, unafraid of challenges, and willing to take risks. Dragons are leaders, taking on projects few others would be prepared to take on.

Food is a central part of the Chinese culture, and the Chinese New Year dinner is the biggest feast of the year. The Chinese culture is all about symbolism and the dishes served for New Year’s are full of symbolic dishes to usher in the New Year. Some foods are selected because they sound like another word that means prosperity, luck, wealth or good fortune. Other foods are served because they resemble money or gold. A traditional Chinese New Year dinner might include a whole chicken (family unity), a whole fish (surplus), duck (happiness), lobster (life and energy), Buddha’s Delight (a vegetarian dish made with symbolic ingredients), shrimp (wealth and abundance), oysters (good fortune), scallops (shaped like ancient coins), tea eggs (fertility), noodles (longevity), jiao-tze or dumplings (shaped like old coins), and spring rolls (resemble gold bricks). Tangerines, oranges and pomelos are given out for good luck and abundance.

Gluten-Free Chinese Dumplings

Gluten-Free Chinese Dumplings

I find the symbolism behind the traditions leading up to Chinese New Year and all the symbolic foods fascinating. Although I wish I could prepare all these symbolic dishes for Chinese New Year, it would probably take me all week to cook. Instead, we will be enjoying one of our family favorites – Chinese Hot Pot.

Chinese Hot Pot is sort of like fondue. A big pot of broth is placed in the center of the table (I use an electric wok), and plates of assorted meats, seafood, vegetables and noodles surround the pot. Everyone helps themselves and cooks their own food. I have little netted baskets so everyone can fish out their own food. When the food is cooked, it is eaten with a dipping sauce. Our favorite dipping sauce is made with sacha sauce, soy sauce and sesame oil. Although I have yet to successfully capture a picture of our family enjoying hot pot (I’m usually scurrying around getting everything on the table), I did find an article on How To Have Chinese Hot Pot At Home that has a nice picture to give you an idea of what it looks like.

Happy New Year, Xin Nian Kuai Le, Gun Hay Fat Choy!!

More Chinese New Year Blog Posts:

Lucky Shrimp Dumplings for Chinese New Year (Har Gao), Spicebox Travels
The Great Race: The Story of the Chinese Zodiac, HapaMama
Symbolism of Chinese New Year’s Foods, Bicultural Mama
Lunar New Year Activities in DC and Baltimore, I’m Not the Nanny
Celebrating Chinese New Year in Taiwan, Travels With Baby
Pineapple Tarts: Treats for Chinese New Year: Lunar Year of the Dragon, Asian in America
Chinese New Year Stir Fry, Wok Star

Favorite Chinese New Year Children’s Books, Chinese Folktales and Chinese New Year Resources:

The Dragon New Year by David Bouchard
Chinese New Year’s Dragon by Rachel Sing
The Dragon’s Tale by Demi
The Dragon Prince by Laurence Yep
Happy New Year by Demi
Celebrating Chinese New Year by Diane Hoyt-Goldsmith
Moonbeams, Dumpling & Dragon Boats by Nina Simonds, Leslie Swartz & The Children’s Museum, Boston
Cat and Rat by Ed Young
Sam and the Lucky Money by Karen Chinn
Lan Po Po, A Red Riding Hood Story From China by Ed Young
Yeh-Shen, A Cinderella Story from China retold by Ai-Ling Louie
The Seven Chinese Brothers by Margaret Mahy
The Lost Horse by Ed Young
Kites by Demi
Mooncakes and Hungry Ghosts Festivals of China by Carol Stepanchuk and Charles Wong
Red Eggs & Dragon Boats by Carol Stepanchuk
A Guide To Chinese Horoscopes by D.J. Burns

Fun Chinese New Year Crafts:

Chinese Celebrations Kit Teachers Guide
Chinese Zodiac Origami
Chinese Paper Lantern
Chinese New Year Crafts

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  1. Great post, Jeanette! I especially like your list of books, will definitely bookmark this. Happy New Year and enjoy your hotpot (one of my family’s favorite meals growing up).

    • Thanks Linda. I actually dug my box of Chinese New Year books out of the basement when I wrote this post, so it was fun looking through them again. My youngest son sat and read a few too!

  2. I am Year of the Dragon, which makes this year fun for me. I wonder if there are any particular food traditions for the various signs of the zodiac (in particular the dragon year, of course).

    • Lydia – you are very special then as a Dragon! I don’t know of any special food traditions for the different zodiac signs. Lobster is supposed to symbolize the dragon – a great excuse to splurge!

  3. What delish dumplings and great info! Thanks so much for including my Pineapple Tarts in your round-up. So honored! Wishes for much luck, prosperity and good fortune to you and your family for this Year of the Dragon! Thanks, Jeanette!

  4. Haha on the Tiger Mom reference! I love all the info and especially the traditions, Jeanette. By the way, Zoe at Z’s Cup of Tea did a Chinese New Year post, too. She shared the recipe for Laura Russell’s (The Gluten-Free Asian Kitchen) Gingery Pot Stickers (with permission from Ten Speed Press). Yum on all!

    Happy Chinese New Year! :-)

    • Tiger Mom…me? I don’t think so – little do they know what life would really be like for them ;). I do love reading about all the traditions and practicing some of them. Thanks for pointing me in Zoe’s direction.

  5. I love the traditions associated with the New Year. I think I will clean now and pay off some debts. We did a small celebration yesterday – although the hot pot looks to be a winner and coming here soon.

  6. I really enjoyed this post. I hope you and your family have a wonderful holiday. Have a good weekend. Blessings…Mary

  7. Christine Robinett says:

    It’s traditional for the festivities to begin the evening before at sundown. I’m in San Francisco Bay Area and there’s many plans for tonight and throughout the next two weeks culminating in the Lantern Parade with the dragons and fireworks. Unfortunately I won’t be partaking of food with acupuncture friends and colleagues as it’s off limits to me but it’s always a visual delight to see. I think they kinda see me as bad luck not eating.

  8. Jeanette, you must go to China! I went to Hong Kong and Beijing in 2001, and fell completely in love with it. When I taught school I had fun celebrating Chinese New Year with the students. Great post!

  9. Happy Chinese New Year! We too are having hot pot and gluten free dumplings for our celebration. I’ll have to give your dough a try. I posted my recipe using rice paper wrappers which, though different are wonderful. After enjoying hot pot whilst in China I started making it at home all the time as it’s my husband’s favorite and I found a simple way to make it using an electric fry pan. Enjoy and Happy New Year!

    • Happy Chinese New Year Lisa! My kids love hot pot too – we use an electric wok that I’ve had for years. I’ll have to check out your dumpling post – thanks!

  10. Happy Chinese New Yea. It sounds like so much fun. Chinese Hot Pot is one of my sister’s favorite types of “fondu”. I love that it’s such a social meal. Lovely post. Thanks for some of the cultural highlights too.

  11. Fun post and great to learn more about Chinese New Year. My parents are actually in Hong Kong right now celebrating. I just pinned your recipe for gluten-free chicken dumplings-yum!

  12. can’t wait to read this post to our son when he gets home from school….wish I’d planned ahead to try one of gthse wonderful recipes you posted. they all look so amazing!! dumplings from our local Chinese restaurant will have to do this year!

  13. Happy Chinese New Years, Jeanette! :]
    My parents love making a hot pot, although we don’t always make it as it’s sort of a hassle and only three or five of our family members eat it (5 if my aunt is willing to come over) but it sure is yummy! ^^

  14. Jeanette,
    Thanks for this informative article about the Chinese New Year. I especially like the fact that you gave the references for further reading. Enjoy the hot pot!

  15. Happy Chinese New Year to you and your family Jeanette.

  16. We are actually going to a Chinese new year dumpling making party today! I am so happy to have read this post to learn more about this holiday :)

    • How fun Marla – dumplings are eaten at most Chinese celebrations, although my husband would eat them every day if I let him 😉

  17. This is just wonderful and delicious! I would love to include the link of this article in my blog post about the Lantern Festival.

  18. I enjoyed having hot pot at a friend’s house to celebrate Chinese New Year. It was fun. I need to get one of those pots!

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