In Chinatown, Sydney, gauzy red lanterns and gawping dragons spar for space among tourists and locals along Haymarket, for the Lunar New Year celebrations which will soon be underway. The largest bash of its type outside Asia, there’s a jubilant atmosphere with scrumptious street food to savor and traditional lion dancers entertaining crowds. It’s all about luck and good fortune and ceremony. Every little thing is imbued with meaning and significance. Superstition reigns supreme and the cultural particulars are fascinating. From the fruit that can’t be cut (no splitting of pears) to the words that must not be spoken (those with negative implications such as death, sick, pain, poor, break, kill) to the cardinal direction to face when standing (it depends on your zodiac sign) it’s all incredibly fascinating. In 2020, this most important occasion of the year commences from January 25th to the 8th of February. Do yourself a favor- find a celebration near you and join in! Here’s what you need to know.
1. The Lunar New Year festival, or Chinese New Year, is celebrated by more than a quarter of the world’s population, including China of course, as well as Vietnam, North and South Korea, Singapore, Brunei, Indonesia, Laos and Malaysia.
2. In China alone, people will make 3 BILLION trips home to be with their families, which is the most important part of the holiday. This marks the largest human migration on the globe. The occasion represents renewal and beginning, which is why it’s also called the Spring Festival. The coldest days are over, and it’s time for fresh starts. The Lunar calendar dictates the timing of the event, so there is no set date from year to year. Twice as much money is spent lauding this occasion than is spent on American Thanksgiving.
3. The Lunar New Year also dictates your zodiac sign, and this, in turn, is used to predict (with assured certainty) your fortune, love life, personality traits, lucky numbers, strengths and weaknesses, career suitabilities and even your health. It matters more than anything else. In the ’80s, my family used to go to a “Chinese restaurant” in North Carolina. It was thrilling to go to Wang’s- white tablecloths and actual silver DOMES on the food (the epitome of luxe in Greensboro!) I felt so cultured, what with my whole deep south family sitting there with such exotic dishes as chow-mein and egg foo young. And forks. (Except for my dad who always got a cheeseburger.) The best part was studying the paper printed placemats that had the Chinese Zodiac on them. I was none too happy with being a Rat and wanted to be a Dog or a Tiger. I kept hoping it would change the next time we visited, but it never did: Once a rat, always a rat. On another note, if you’re a rat as well, we have some work to do! Since this is officially our year and we have offended the God of Age (your own zodiac year is BAD LUCK!), we’ll need to guard against bad fortune by closely minding our conduct and wearing plenty of red. Find your zodiac sign here so you know what the year has in store for you. (Seriously, do it.)
4. Avoid taboos! Showering isn’t allowed on New Years Day- this is to prevent the washing away of all the good luck, plus sweeping, cleaning and tossing out the garbage is also verboten. During the period of the New Year, there is no hair cutting or usage of knives, scissors or needles lest it cut your stream of wealth and success. Arguing and crying should be avoided to ensure a smooth path forward. Medicine should not be taken (except for chronic life-threatening conditions) nor should shots be received, the doctor visited or surgery undergone. This is to avoid being sick in the coming year. Do not seek repayment of debts until after the 5th day, borrowing is unacceptable as well. Follow this advice if you want to avoid bad luck. When paying visits, always bring a gift, but never a clock, as the Chinese characters for it are a homonym for ‘paying one’s last respects.’
5. Those red envelopes 红包 (hóng bāo) – what gives? The red packets. Or pockets. You’ll see them everywhere. Whatever you call them, they’re fantastic because they contain moooo-lah! And again, it’s all about the transfer of luck, and the avoidance of bad fortune. Translated as ‘money to anchor the year’ 压岁钱 (yā suì qián) these red envelopes are passed between friends, relations and business associates like players are traded on professional sports teams- with regularity and wild abandon. Once a custom that primarily saw children as the recipients, digital packets are the trend now and are passed between husband and wife, bosses and employees, friends and neighbors.
6. “Gong hei fat choy” is the most common Chinese New Year greeting in Cantonese, which is spoken in parts of southern China and Hong Kong. It directly translates to “wishing you great happiness and prosperity.” In Mandarin, (the most widely spoken language in the world) the same greeting is “gong xi fa cai” (pronounced gong she fa tsai).
Have you been to a Lunar New Year celebration? What’s stopping you? Get out there and join the merriment. Are you a rat like me or is your zodiac more prosperous this year?
Lorraine @Not Quite Nigella says
One year you’ll have to come to a Chinese New Year dinner! There is so much good food.
Count me in!
Allyson Young says
They absolutely loved it and showered me with hugs. They speak Mandarin. I heard all about the red bags and how the kids always asked for them. These ladies grew up in China under the “one child” rule. They have all formed a sisterhood bond here at work. It’s really sweet. Their culture is fascinating.
I’m so glad you gave it a go! And thanks for sharing how it went. I agree- it’s a deeply meaningful culture.
Allyson Young says
Very cool. I work with several ladies from China. I’m going to attempt this greeting to them.
Please do!! Let me know how you go!