Growing up in a multicultural household, I learned bits and pieces of my parents’ cultures. What always sticks the most are the food and the traditions. Though we didn’t learn how to speak my Dad’s Chinese dialect and we knew little of the history of where in China his ancestors came from, we knew the basics. We observed Chinese New Year, we knew a bit about the traditions (*ahem* Red envelopes/”hong bao” are things kids learn about at a young age!), we knew what we loved to order at Chinese Dim Sum (“Har Gow,” and “Siu Mai”!), and we were taught how to use chopsticks. Using a fork at a Chinese restaurant or ordering a beverage other than water or tea were considered faux-pas!
Since Little One’s cultural background is like that of the United Nations, I want to make sure she knows about her grandparents’ roots. This is why Chinese New Year and Chinese New Year traditions are so important to us. We started our annual Chinese New Year celebrations on our farm a few years ago. What started out as an intimate gathering with our regular five families plus my parents and Hubby’s side of the family turned into something of an event. This year, we had sixty-something guests in our very modest farm house. There were fifty-something adults, two babies, seven school-aged children, and seven teenagers! Friends have said that I’m amazing for hosting a celebration this big. I think I might be a bit crazy!
Our Chinese New Year traditions:
Last week, I chatted about Chinese New Year with Little One’s JK/SK class. Little One and her classmates made Chinese lanterns and a decoration with the Chinese “Luck” character. I also chatted with a grade 2 class at another school and they also made the Chinese “Luck” decoration.
The children learned about lucky symbols. They also learned that red is a lucky colour in Chinese. I spoke to the children quickly about the Chinese zodiac and we went through what their signs are. In Little One’s class there were only two signs for the students. They were either born in the year of the rat or the year of the ox. I did the same thing in a grade 2 class at another school and the students were fascinated by their signs and personality traits for their Chinese zodiac signs.
Of course, the “hong bao” (red envelopes, as they are called in Mandarin) were of particular interest to all the students! They were excited when I told them that traditionally, adults give children (up until young adults who aren’t working yet) red envelopes that contain money. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends and relatives give the “hong bao” to kids. The red symbolzes good luck, fortune and happiness.
Since I didn’t grow up learning more than the basics about Chinese New Year and my culture, I’ve done extensive research since I had a daughter of my own. There are a few books that I’ve found were helpful in explaining some of the traditions of Chinese New Year to my five year old.
D is for Dancing Dragon is one of Little One’s favourite books. It was given to her by my aunt (along with a lucky red envelope tucked inside)! The book introduces some of the China’s history, traditions, and practices. Through this alphabet book, children learn about culture and tradition by means of brief explanations and beautiful images.
Dragon Dance introduces Chinese New Year traditions to even the youngest readers (or listeners!).
The Runaway Wok is also a fun book. I like that the story reminds children about the importance of generosity — especially during Chinese New Year.
As far as food goes, on Chinese New Year, we’ve kept some traditions alive by having symbolic foods like noodles for longevity/long life, and oranges for luck. My mom especially is superstitious and reminds us that we are not to cut the long noodles because noodles represent long life. I made sure to have lots of oranges, tangerines, and mandarins to pass around freely during the evening. Tangerines and oranges are given out during Chinese New Year because the words for tangerine and orange sound like luck and wealth in Chinese. One of our guests brought Pomelos. The giant grapefruit relative is a symbol of abundance, because the Chinese word for pomelo sounds like the word for “to have” in Chinese. Spring rolls and egg rolls are appetizers that resemble gold or silver bullion and symbolize wealth.
I definitely cannot take credit for the food. I made 12 quarts of wonton soup, 100 spring rolls, 5 dim sum items (har gau and and assorted siu mai), and each family brought a Chinese New Year potluck item.
Though we didn’t have a whole fish, we had a different kind of whole fish! My friend from Pebblewood Farm made this amazing cake for two very special birthday boys — My father, Robert and her husband, Dave. The fish was an inside joke since the two are fishing buddies. During Chinese New Year, a whole steamed fish is served because the word for fish, “Yu,” sounds like the words both for wish and abundance. Hence, serving a fish at the end of the meal symbolizes a wish for abundance in the coming year. This fish was served at the end of the meal!
Chinese Lanterns & Fireworks
More Chinese New Year traditions! After we shared a meal (copious amounts of food!), all the families gathered outside for some fireworks. The kids sat on a mountain of snow and watched the fireworks, but I knew they’d be super excited about releasing their lanterns into the night sky. It was the perfect evening. It wasn’t too cold (at least not as cold as it had been the past few weeks) and we didn’t have the crazy wind and snow we’d been having lately.
If you haven’t seen a Chinese floating lantern up close before, you’d probably be surprised at just how HUGE they are! They’re bigger than my five year old daughter! When the lantern is lit and the heat gets trapped in the paper balloon-type lantern, it starts floating up into the sky.
On New Year’s Eve, firecrackers are set off to usher out the old year and welcome the new year. I’ve read that the firecrackers are supposed to scare of evil too. According to a text I read ages ago, there was a mythical creature called Nian who would come and eat children, livestock and crops on the first day of the year. People would set off firecrackers to scare Nian off and they’d also put up red lanterns because they believed Nian was afraid of the colour red. On the 15th day of the Chinese New Year festival, people release lanterns in the sky for the Lantern Festival. We actually just did the fireworks and the lanterns at the end of our Chinese New Year party (for simplicity and convenience, and because it was the perfect ending to a perfect night).
All the kids and adults were mesmerized. It was truly a magical night. Moments like these make me realize how blessed we are to have such special people in our lives. It also serves as a reminder to me that there are many wonderful people in the world.