One of my favourite holidays arrives this weekend for it’s Chinese New Year! Ever since I was a kid, I’ve loved celebrating Chinese New Year — the only one I adore more is the Mid-Autumn Festival and, of course, Christmas. It’s yet another chance to spend time with family, eat delicious food and partake in traditions and rituals that I’ve always known and held close to my heart.
In many ways, it feels even sweeter to be writing this post with the gift of hindsight. Growing up, I quickly realised that my peers at primary school and I didn’t have the same upbringing and somewhat sadly I’d totally brush off Chinese New Year when it was spoken about at school. My primary school would ‘celebrate’ by handing out fortune cookies and prawn crackers, and making me and the other Chinese kid stand up and talk at 30+ children about our lives. Fun(!) These days, I couldn’t be more proud of my upbringing, my background, my culture. I jump at the chance to share how we celebrate — hence this post! — and I wholeheartedly believe I have a chance at shifting perspectives and sharing more of my beautiful little world.
We celebrate the Year of the Rat starting on Saturday 25th January, 2020, and I’m thoroughly excited. If you didn’t know, the date ‘moves’ every year because it’s calculated by the lunar calendar. My Granny used to calculate her birthday by it, which made for SO much chaos!! We’d joke that she had two birthdays like the Queen, and she’d get cross with us for celebrating the Gregorian date when she personally wanted the lunar…!
There are actually 14 days of celebration, each coming with its own tradition, but I wanted to share the ways my family commemorate Chinese New Year as a fairly traditional Chinese family living in England…
There’s really something to be said about the ‘Clean home, clear mind’ mantra. Particularly for Chinese New Year, it’s considered bad luck to shower, throw anything out or sweep during the holiday, so we always do a big clear out beforehand to prepare for the New Year. The thought is that you sweep the bad luck away and make room for the good, so we do a big clean, declutter and general sort out.
Pop for a haircut and purchase new clothes
Hand in hand with making room for the good, we always get our hair cut or at least trimmed before Chinese New Year. It’s considered taboo to cut your hair during the holiday so a week or so before, we’ll all trim our hair a little. (I got mine done last Friday!) Additionally, we also splash out on a shiny new outfit to welcome the New Year. Bonus points if you select something red to symbolise good fortune and joy; I always take great pleasure in this particular ritual!
Indulge in symbolic food
It wouldn’t be a Chinese holiday or festival without FOOD. Plus, it’s the time for me to rejoice as the first day of the new year is when we eat solely veggie for good karma. There are plentiful symbolic foods that we eat throughout the 14 days at the turn of a New Year and, most sadly, I can’t eat the majority of them now that I’ve adopted a plant-based diet. Nonetheless, I’ll be making my own vegan versions, ready to embrace the Year of the Rat. Food is one of the greatest ways to bring Chinese people together; auspicious foods include fish (for prosperity). dumplings (for wealth), tong yuen (for family togetherness; wholeness), noodles (for longevity) and niangao (for higher income or higher ranking). These primarily stem from the homophonic of the words themselves.
Have a pomelo bath
On the night before Chinese New Year, we always bathe with tea leaves and pomelo leaves to wash away bad luck and dirty, evil omens, and encourage good fortune. Odd as this may sound, it’s one of my favourite rituals and one that my siblings and I would always giggle about as kids! I’d never even seen it as odd until Mum sent me back down to Southampton for Uni with a plastic bag of pomelo leaves for my Chinese New Year shower.
Read your zodiac
If you’ve read Daisybutter for a number of years, you’ll know that I used to publish Chinese zodiacs during Chinese New Year. My Granny used to almost religiously consult a 通勝書 (a huge tome that loosely translates as an ‘all-seeing book’). In essence, it’s a Chinese divination guide. Each year, she’d share the supposed fates and readings for each Chinese zodiac, and I’d share them with you! Sadly since she passed in 2016, I haven’t committed to writing these posts again because, well, I can’t bear to. But I always read my Chinese horoscope for the year and take some time to untangle my thoughts.
Pay respects to your ancestors
Of course as with many Chinese festivals, we pay respects to our ancestors. Around the time of Chinese New Year, we visit my Granny and Grandad’s grave, clean it up (if we’re visiting before) and pray. We’ll burn incense and joss papers, and bring their favourite foods. Again, this is one of the rituals that I love the most — we lost my Grandad before I was born, so I grew up doing this — but one that sounds fairly mad to outsiders. We have special permission from the cemetery to do this, and it’s always in a container so as not to disrupt other guests and residents.
Traditionally, you’d spend five days at home and/or with your family, and on the subsequent days, you can head out with friends, etc. I’ve always loved hanging out with my family, something my white-British peers find hard to believe, and it’s even more of a treat in adulthood to do so. Hand in hand with this, I like to utilise the embrace of a New Year to express my gratitude for my family and all that we have and do for each other, whilst we’re all together.
Whew! I hope you enjoyed a little insight into how we celebrate Chinese New Year in the UK.