In the U.S., the New Year comes and goes on January 1st with families and friends gathered together on the eve and perhaps a day to recover from the festivities. In China, the New Year begins an entire month before the lunar January 1 and is celebrated for another month after that. This year, I was able to join in on some of the annual traditions with my relatives from my hometown, 延吉 (Yanji). Having moved to the states when I was five, this will be the first Chinese New Year that I can remember celebrating properly in the homeland. Surprisingly I was unable to recount any memories of what this holiday was like when I was little, so I was really excited to spend it with them this year.
During my stay, I always had great conversations with my grandpa whenever we went grocery shopping or hiking on 帽儿山 (Mao’er Mountain). I asked him when we shopped for bread one day how he and my grandma prepare for Chinese New Year, because as far as I know we clean a few days before the eve and then eat dumplings on the new year. For him and most families in Yanji, they begin cleaning the house the first week of December before the new year. They will dust and wipe down every piece of furniture, scrub the floors, dispose of any unwanted clutter in their drawers, and wash their clothes to make sure all the dirty “bad luck” is washed away for a clean slate in the new year.
To prepare for the food, they buy the vegetables and flour about a week to two weeks so they can pick and clean them to be ready by the last week. On the 24th, people will clean their houses again to ensure all the dust gathered in the last few days is out. Nowadays, families who are busier with full-time jobs and school work will wait until the 24th to properly clean their house for time’s sake. On the 25th and 26th, smells of freshly chopped vegetables and raw flour will fill the rooms for the 馒头 (steamed buns) and savory dishes. As the new year date approaches, families traditionally make a month’s supply of 馒头 to store, use the fryer, and make seafood. On the 30th, the last day of the lunar year, children are given 红包 (red envelopes) by their grandparents, parents, and any close elder relatives. The color red is for good luck, and the envelopes are a way to wish the children to stay young and lively. One of my friends my age joked that she can’t receive 红包 anymore because she’s too old now.
At midnight on the 1st day of the New Year, families begin eating their first meal of 饺子 (dumplings), fish, noodles, and any dishes special to their family. If you’re lucky, you’ll receive one of the few 饺子 with a coin in the middle of its filling, indicating that you will receive good fortune and wealth for the rest of the year. The noodles represent a long life, and the fish brings you good fortune as well (I forgot the exact meaning behind it). Leftovers are always expected because it means you will have a good harvest for the remainder of the year. When my grandpa was young, he would go over to his friends’ houses or vice versa to celebrate with sparklers and watch fireworks together.
Then comes the month after the big day. During this time men do not cut their hair, women do not wash their clothes, and families do not use the frying pan. I forget the significance of the hair and clothing, but using the frying pan creates a lot of smoke and rusting on the bottom of the pan, both indicators of bad luck. This is when you eat your leftovers and 馒头 to limit cooking new food as much as possible. At the end of the month, men can finally go to the barber and cut off their “dragon tail.”
Of course, this is just a guide to the traditions carried over the years, so I’m sure every family has its variances, but I thought the no haircut rule and making the piles of 馒头 was interesting. I arrived on the 10th of the lunar year, which doesn’t indicate anything specific, though I was welcomed to my grandma and grandpa’s delicious cooking:
The 13th day is 立春 (Lichun) where we eat bean sprouts and meat wrapped in thin pancakes. This light meal is to refresh our stomachs from eating so much heavy foods in the first 12 days:
The 15th is 元宵节 (yuanxiaojie), also known as the Lantern Festival, where families eat 元宵， sweet rice balls with various fillings such as peanut and red bean. These are made by putting flour and sugar together and mixing it in a pan. The ingredients eventually stick together to make small circular shapes, rather than 汤圆 which taste similar but are stuffed like dumplings. Outside my grandparents’ apartment we could see fireworks lighting up the night and lanterns floating about in the sky:
My lunar birthday was the following day, so my family insisted on celebrating at a nice restaurant along with a beautiful cake that my aunt helped pick out:
When elders retire, many of them they like to spend time playing instruments in a local orchestra or dancing 扭秧歌 (niuyangge), aka shaking their tail feathers to Chinese folk music. Each year they have a competition to see which team has the best costumes and routines. I found the acts to be quite long, but they gave me a chance to capture good shots on camera:
It was great being able to jump right into the celebrations when I arrived in Yanji. Of course food is always a big part of the traditions, but I liked just sitting at home with my family to talk about the old times. We call from overseas from time to time, but physically being there under the care of my relatives brought a wave of nostalgia in me that will make me miss those innocent days as a toddler.