Gong Xi Fa Cai! Or: How to Celebrate Chinese New Year Outside of China

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As a Chinese child growing up in Canada, every year, I experienced something like a second Christmas.

After the warm festivities, feasting, and gift-receiving of Christmas time, after the excitement and countdown to New Year and several weeks after the tinsel and lights have faded–the mood would build up again. Soon, I would receive more gifts, this time cash in little red envelopes, and join more gatherings full of food and family.

It was like Christmas all over again.

It is Chinese New Year.

This year, I visited China several weeks before Chinese New Year, which is, officially, today. While I was in China, preparations for this most important time of the year were already underway. When I met others, a popular ice-breaking question was, “Are you going home for Chinese New Year?”

I will be home for Chinese New Year this year, but “home” is currently here in Canada. Yet there are some easy ways to commemorate Chinese New Year even outside of China:

1. Keeping the Spirit of Giving

One of the most iconic traditions of Chinese New Year is the giving of red envelopes stuffed with one or more paper bills, given from the older generation to the younger ones. When giving and receiving a red envelope, both parties may speak words of blessings to each another, usually in the form of four-word Chinese idioms. The spirit of giving can be preserved in ways other than passing out cash too. Food associated with Chinese New Year, such as mandarin oranges, dried fruit and candy with bright foil, can be wrapped in small bunches and given to family, friends and co-workers to wish them happiness and blessings in the coming year.

2. Eating Foods with Meaning

There are many foods traditionally associated with Chinese New Year, and it may be fun–and delicious–to have some around this time of year. In northern China, people eat dumplings or “jiao zi,” the shape of which resembles a gold ingot, a form of currency used in ancient China. In the south, people eat a sticky rice pudding called “nian gao,” the name which sounds like the words “higher year.”  Other foods eaten at Chinese New Year that carry meaning are noodles (representing longevity) and fish (representing abundance).

3.  Wearing New Clothes

Many traditional Chinese will buy a complete set of new clothes to wear on the first day of New Year. Wearing new clothes symbolizes a fresh and new start. Wearing red–the favourite color of Chinese tradition–is another way to be festive.

4. Cutting–and Not Cutting–One’s Hair

Many Chinese will get a haircut before New Year to complement their new outfit on New Year’s day. It is considered unlucky, however, to cut anything during New Year, so those who want to cut their hair must do so early.

5. Cleaning–and Not Cleaning–the House

Cleaning the home from top to bottom is a popular way to welcome in the New Year, and to prepare your house for all the visitors who will drop by to bring well-wishes. Sweeping during New Year, however, is supposed to sweep away the good luck, so brooms are carefully put away during the New Year period.

6. Wishing People “Happy New Year” in Chinese

Chinese people greet one another with “gung hey fat choi” (Cantonese) or “gong xi fa cai” (Mandarin),” which literally means, “Wishing you a financially prosperous year.”

Another greeting is, “sun leen fai lok (Cantonese) or “xin nian kuai le” (Mandarin), which simply means, “Happy New Year.”

About Chinese New Year:

The Chinese have their own calendar, which follows the moon. Chinese New Year happens every year between January 21 and February 21, on the day of the first new moon, which is the darkest day. Celebrations run for 15 days, until the full moon appears. According to the Chinese lunar calendar, we are entering year 4710.

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How about you?

  • What Chinese traditions are you curious about?
  • Do you celebrate Chinese New Year, and how?
  • Do you have any memories of celebrating Chinese New Year?
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Image credit: Collage, Esther Weng, Microsoft Clip Art

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Winnie Lui

Winnie Lui

The wave of Asian immigration in the 1990s brought Winnie to Canada on a little red-mast junk. To fulfill her family’s dream of running a business in Hong Kong and giving the children a Western education, Winnie’s father commuted home to Canada during Christmas and Chinese New Year, and Winnie herself spent her childhood between the two continents and among many different schools and neighbourhoods. Her growing up experience has become a mosaic of cultures, languages, and perspectives.
Winnie Lui
Winnie Lui
  • Trinity

    Number three is definitely favorite. :). Thank oh so much for the insight and lesson!

    • Winnie

      Hi Trinity – I like that one too! And I love seeing people wearing traditional clothing. You’re welcome. 🙂

  • Thank you for teaching us about your traditions Winnie! I think we should all celebrate Chinese New Year 🙂

    • Winnie

      Thanks Claire! I’ve been learning too that Chinese New Year coincides with Korean New Year, as Koreans also use the lunar calendar in tradition. Always nice to have another reason to celebrate!

  • A.sher

    Interesting …. I m going to celebrate this Chinese New Year with my Chinese friends…. 🙂

  • jimmy kraktov

    I went to a Chinese New Years celebration at a hotel banquet facility in Edmonton in 1978. I ate a lot, drank a lot, and learned a great deal about the Chinese. That was one great party!

  • Vaibhhav

    Hello, currently I’m in China and learning Chinese language. I’m with Chinese family for new year celebrations. Could you advice me regarding how many chinese characters are actually there, and how much I need to know for comfortable day to day living. My boss told me there are about 7000 but learning 3000 would be similar to graduating from Chinese university. How much characters you know (just curiosity). Thanks in advance.

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