Family gatherings! Fireworks! Zodiac animals! There’s a lot to love about Chinese New Year. Samantha Wong outlines everything kids need to know about it
First up, a few facts. Based on the lunar, rather than the Gregorian calendar, Chinese New Year begins on the first day of the new moon, which falls any time between January 21 and February 20 each year. While the lunar calendar is based upon the monthly cycles of the Moon’s phases, the Gregorian calendar is determined by the Earth’s revolution around the Sun. The lunar calendar is about one month behind the Gregorian calendar (which starts on January 1) because it has between 30 and 50 more days per year. This year, January 25 is the first day of the Lunar New Year
Also known as the Spring Festival, this celebration dates back thousands of years and it’s an important public holiday in many countries including China, South Korea, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Taiwan. Chinese communities all over the globe celebrate CNY in their city’s Chinatown districts. And it’s a major holiday (January 25 to 28) here in Hong Kong. During the festivities, ancestors are honoured and traditional ceremonies are held where people get together and welcome the new year with customs that are believed to bring good fortune, prosperity and happiness.
What’s with the animals?
The Chinese zodiac calendar has a cycle of 12 years, and each year has a Chinese zodiac animal as its symbol. The 12 Chinese zodiac animals are Rat, Ox, Tiger,Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Pig. 2020 ushers in the Year of the Rat. The animals always come in the same order, so 2019 was the Year of the Pig, 2020 is the Year of the Rat and 2021 will be the Year of the Ox. The last Rat years were 2008 and 1996.
An ancient folk story explains how these animals made the final cut to be immortalised in the zodiac – the Jade Emperor called a race, decreeing that the first 12 animals to swim across a fast-flowing river would each have a year named in their honour. Thirteen animals lined up on the riverbank; however, the poor cat was pushed into the water by the rat, and was excluded from the final line-up. The rat reached the opposite bank first, by riding on the ox’s back, which is why he is the first of the 12-year cycle of animals in the Chinese zodiac.
To complicate things a little bit, the Chinese zodiac animals are combined with the five elements (metal, earth, fire, wood and water) over a 48-year cycle. 2020 is a Metal Rat Year, 2008 was an Earth Rat Year, 1996 a Fire Rat Year, 1984 a Wood Rat Year and 1972 a Water Rat Year.
People are assigned a Chinese zodiac sign according to the year of their birth, and they are thought to display certain characteristics unique to their zodiac animal. For example, Tigers are thought to be great leaders and Goats are creative, while 2019’s ‘mischief’ of Rats are said to be quick-witted, wily and resourceful. Prince Harry, Eminem and Katy Perry are all Rats.
Just as people take on the characteristics of their Chinese zodiac animals, so do the years named after them. What then can we expect of 2020, the Year of the Rat? Importantly, it’s going to be a time of new beginnings (remember the rat ranks first among the Chinese zodiac animals). The Rat promises to deliver more prosperity, better luck and plenty of change.
Why all the flowers and food?
CNY festivities are always marked by floral decoration, with a variety of auspicious plants on sale to usher in prosperity for the new lunar year. Miniature kumquat trees are popular – the fruit’s orange/ golden colour is a symbol of money, while pomelos, often seen in pairs, are said to signify family unity. You’ll also see orchids galore – these delicate blooms are symbolic of both fertility and luxury, so they are always popular during the Spring Festival.
It’s traditional to fill the home with flowering plants – which symbolise growth and new beginnings – and to give them as gifts. Live potted plants are preferable to fresh cut flowers but if any flower blooms in your home on Lunar New Year’s Day, you can expect to prosper in the months ahead.
We also eat ‘auspicious food’ during the new year period. For many, this means fish dishes. A fish is a symbol of good luck, wealth and a healthy life. Long noodles are also popular because they symbolise both good fortune and long life
When celebrating at home, it’s customary to set out bowls of oranges (for good health and long life), tangerines (for fruitful, lasting relationships) and persimmons (for happiness and wealth). We also offer guests eight varieties of dried fruit (or sweets) to ensure they start CNY sweetly.
How about lai see?
Throughout CNY, we wish each other good luck, happiness and wealth. We say Gong Hey Fat Choy (pronounced Gong-hee-faat-choy) in Cantonese, and Gong Xi Fa Cai (pronounced Gong-she-faa-tsai) in Mandarin. Both are wishes for a prosperous New Year.
To get the Lunar New Year off to the right start, we give each other lai see, those little red packets stuffed with a crisp dollar note. When giving lai see, the first thing to bear in mind is that it’s not a tip or a year-end bonus. It’s a blessing, a wish of good luck for everything to go smoothly in someone’s life and for their work to be profitable. There’s an order to lai see-giving too: older to younger, married to non-married, and between people of the same generation. Importantly, children should not give lai see – it would be considered insulting – kids receive only.
The amount of money that goes into each lai see packet varies. Here are some ballpark figures. As a simple gesture of appreciation, HK$20 will do. For young kids, HK$10 is acceptable. For older kids and young adults, it’s HK$20 to HK$50. For helpers, at least HK$500. Bosses, married couples and older relatives tend to give higher amounts.
The Spring Festival festivities last over a fortnight in most countries. The new year period is celebrated with dragon dances, lion dances, gift exchanging and fireworks. It typically ends, with lantern festivals, on the 15th day. Here’s to a happy, healthy and prosperous Year of the Rat!