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Family-friendly festival! CELEBRATING CNY WITH KIDS

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The lead-up to the holiday is the perfect time to start teaching children some of the traditions surrounding Chinese New Year. Samantha Wong takes a look

We’re getting ready to usher in Chinese New Year (CNY), the Year of the Tiger on February 1, and there’s a lot for kids to look forward to – three days off school, family gatherings, new clothes, lucky red packets… There’s also a lot of fun stuff for them to learn if they are to get the most out of the holiday.

First off, at CNY, we wish each other good luck, happiness and wealth. Kids will need to be able to say Gong Hei Fat Choy (pronounced Gong-hee-faatchoy) in Cantonese, and Gong Xi Fa Cai (pronounced Gong-she-faa-tsai) in Mandarin. Both are wishes for a prosperous New Year.

Across HK

Over CNY, children look forward to receiving lai see, those little red packets filled with a crisp dollar note. They need to know how to accept lai see politely – with both hands, head bowed and a simple doh jeh (thank you) – and they must never open the packet in front of the giver.

The origin of lai see-giving, the legend of Ang Pow, is a fun one for kids to learn. It harks back to the Song Dynasty, when an evil dragon terrorised the people of a village called Chang-Chieu. No one was able to drive off the dragon or kill it. The villagers lived in fear until one day a young man named Ang Pow slayed the beast with his magic sabre. Out of gratitude and in the hope of warding off evil in the future, the elders of Chang-Chieu gave Ang Pow a red envelope filled with money.

Top tip: Children should not give lai see – it would be considered insulting by the adult recipient – kids receive only. For young kids, HK$10 is acceptable. For older kids and young adults, it’s HK$20 to HK$50. Lai see is a blessing, a wish for good luck; it’s not about giving a large amount of money.

Kids love the social aspect of CNY; the way families and friends get together to celebrate at each other’s homes. The dressing up required for these occasions – in new (ideally red or gold) clothes – is the icing on the cake.

At CNY, everything from the food we eat to the flowers we buy has a special meaning, and children are often intrigued by all the traditions. Teach them, for instance, that certain flowers have ‘super powers’ and that this is why we gift them at CNY. Miniature kumquat trees, with their tiny orange fruits bring the recipient money, peonies bring true love, bamboo stems good luck. And why do we buy live potted plants at this time of year rather than fresh-cut flowers? Because potted plants symbolise growth and fresh starts. Tell children that the family will have a lucky year if a flower blooms on Chinese Lunar New Year’s Day, and they will watch excitedly, waiting to see if it happens.

Children are also delighted to learn that the dishes we make or have made for us at CNY represent blessings for the year to come. We eat spring rolls because they look like bars of gold, and are therefore a wish for prosperity and wealth. And we eat dumplings, shaped like ancient gold and silver ingots, for the same reason. If you are making dumplings with your kids, place a coin in one of them – teach them that whoever picks that dumpling is guaranteed good luck in the coming year.

Teach kids that steamed fish is an absolute must at CNY since it symbolises surplus and wealth. It’s unlucky to flip the fish – we eat one side of it for dinner and the rest the next day in order to prolong the surplus and make sure the coming year is prosperous. Why don’t we eat the head and tail? This is a reminder to finish everything you start and to wish for positive results.

A whole steamed chicken represents a harmonious and united family, and it’s another CNY staple. Teach kids that eating the chicken wings will help them succeed (fly higher), and eating the bones will help them achieve their goals.

You can also explain why we eat extra-long ‘longevity noodles’ at CNY – the longer the noodles, the longer our life will be. We must not cut our noodles for obvious reasons, but we are free to slurp!

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CNY is based on the lunar rather than the Gregorian calendar, which is why Chinese Lunar New Year’s Day can fall any time between January 21 and February 20, but what’s more interesting to kids is that in the Chinese zodiac calendar, each year has an animal as its symbol. 2022 ushers in the Year of the Tiger, one of 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac, the others being the Rat, Ox, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Pig.

Children love the ancient folk story that explains how these creatures made the final cut to be immortalised in the zodiac: The Jade Emperor called a Great 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 cat was pushed into the water by the rat, and was excluded from the final line-up.

Once children have grasped that each year is affiliated with one of the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac, they will want to find out which animal heads up their own birth year. (Google it.) Kids find it entertaining to learn that people are thought to display certain characteristics unique to their zodiac animal, for example Roosters are practical and honest, Goats are creative, while 2022’s hide of Tigers are brave, competitive and charming. Famous Tiger Year people include Lady Gaga, Tom Cruise and Leonardo diCaprio.

Top Tip:
Kids can discover more about CNY in a fun and humorous way by picking up Hong Kong author Sarah Brennan’s Chinese zodiac series of children’s books. This fast-paced and funny series is the perfect CNY primer with illustrations by Harry Harrison. The Tale of Pinyin Panda is a hilarious take on the Great Race and explains exactly why the Panda didn’t make it into the Chinese zodiac. Of Brennan’s 12 Chinese Calendar Tales, the one to pick up this year is The Tale of Temujin, which describes what happens when Temujin the Tiger, the Terror of the East, collides with tantrum-throwing Princess Precious at a grand imperial palace.

Top tip: When celebrating at home, a good way to involve the kids is to have them set out the traditional candy trays – eight varieties of dried fruit (or sweets) – to ensure everyone’s CNY gets off to a sweet start. They can also fill up the bowls of oranges (for good health and long life), tangerines (for fruitful, lasting relationships) and persimmons (for happiness and wealth).

CNY across hk
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