Chinese New Year traditions

Chinese New Year (CNY) is one of the biggest celebrations of the year for ethnic Chinese, even for Burmese Chinese families like mine. My grandparents and some of my great grandparents were born in Burma, so it’s interesting to see how some of these traditions have carried over the course of several generations.

A lot of the traditions are centered around food, so I thought it’d be interesting to share what my family does. The biggest celebration is the New Year’s Eve meal (除夕團圓飯). Actually, in Burma, celebrations are at least 3 days and traditionally 15 days, but celebrations in the States are done on a much smaller scale. When my maternal grandma (婆婆) was alive, we celebrated CNY extravagantly each year. However, she passed away around the time of Chinese New Year, so her death anniversary now overshadows New Year celebrations.

My parents, unlike most of my aunts and uncles, aren’t traditional, which means they don’t observe many superstitions or offer food to the ancestors. The 3 major Chinese holidays that my extended family celebrates are Chinese New Year (春節), Qing Ming (清明節), and the Moon Festival (八月節). Usually, my mom will only make offerings to the Buddha, as she already does the rest of the year. The standard offerings for CNY are:

  • Oranges (柑仔)
  • Pineapple (王莉)
  • Bananas (弓蕉)
  • Huat-ke (發粿) – ‘prosperity’ (發, huat) cake baked by my aunt
  • Ti-ke (甜粿) – sweet glutinous rice cake
  • Dried coconut sweets (糖椰條)

This year, my aunts and uncles ‘recommended’ that we offer food to the ancestors as well, at the very least. Although these traditions probably have Taoist origins, my family of staunch Theravada Buddhists describes these practices as transferring merit to the deceased by doing good deeds. I personally think “worship” in the Eastern and Western sense are two very different things–in Chinese tradition, worship means paying one’s respects.

After cooking the meal, my mom urgently told us to change into our dress clothes and get ready to worship before noon (I’m guessing this may be a Burmese-influenced, since Theravada Buddhist monks cannot consume food past noon). My dad and I set out a small table outside and placed some dishes, desserts and tea out. Then we started lighting incense and bowing 3 times.

After giving them some time to eat, we had to confirm that the ancestors had “eaten” the food, by tossing two coins (since we don’t have any divination blocks at home) and trying to get the sacred combination (聖杯), one head and one tail. Everyone in the family tried tossing the coins, but each attempt yielded 2 heads. An hour later, I tried once more and alas confirmed that they had completed the meal. Then I planted the incense sticks into the soil and to poured the tea onto soil. There’s a similar Burmese practice done at the conclusion of every Buddhist ceremony, to offer the water to the Earth Goddess, Wathondara.

Then it was time to feast. Typically, my mom uses a lot of bean curd to make dishes during CNY. The 3 requisite meats during for the meal are pork, chicken and fish (豬、雞、魚), the 3 animals used in the 3 Ritual Sacrifices (三牲). This year was no exception, and my mom prepared a 9 course meal (9 is a lucky number):

  1. Watercress and fish ball soup (not pictured)
  2. Bean sprouts and tofu
  3. Stir-fried vegetarian noodles
  4. Stewed pork with bamboo shoots
  5. Mixed stir fried vegetables (chap cai, 雜菜)
  6. Handmade potstickers
  7. Chicken curry with peanut sauce
  8. Braised hot and sour tilapia
  9. Burmese-style shrimp salad

For dessert, I made glutinous rice balls in syrup (如意果, recipe here). Next year, I’ve resolved to make ang-ku ke  (紅龜粿, lit. “red tortoise cake”), a traditional Hokkien dessert of steamed glutinous rice cakes filled with sweet paste.

My aunts and uncles also do an evening prayer to Ti-kong (天公), the Jade Emperor and offer vegetarian dishes before eating dinner and told my parents to do the same this year. But my parents opted not to. For Hokkiens like my Dad, the 9th day of Chinese New Year, called Pai Ti Kong (拜天公), to worship the Jade Emperor, is a huge celebration rivaling the feast on New Year’s Eve. My family doesn’t mark this day this either, because it’s time-consuming and also because my mom, who is Hakka, would be burdened with much of the preparations.

My mom prepared vegetarian noodles in advance so we could eat a vegetarian meal on New Year’s Day. On New Year’s Day, a lot of Chinese people observe vegetarianism, to cleanse the body and to start off the new year without incurring bad karma (from consuming animal flesh).

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