Chinese New Year
A New York food writer recalls a traditional celebration in her native China
by Eileen Yin-Fei Lo
There are so many memories I have, happy memories of the New Year, the lunar New Year so important to the Chinese, for whom this time is one of traditions and habits thousands of years old. Perhaps, however, the one that always signaled the beginning of what was a month-long celebration in my village occurred a week before the actual beginning of that next year.
On that morning we would all get up, have our breakfast and then gather around our kitchen stove. The picture, on paper, of Tsao Chun, the Kitchen God, which for a year had hung above our stove would be taken down. His mouth would be smeared with honey, the picture set upon a tiny bamboo sedan chair and then burned. As his picture burned and the smoke rose we believed that Tsao Chun would rise to heaven and tell the Jade Emperor only sweet things about our family. This was my personal sign that the New Year was about to begin.
We had, during this last month of the old year, paid our debts, forgiven others. In our house in Sun Tak, a suburban village of Canton, we had spent days preserving meats, making sweet cakes and candies, sweet dumplings and little balls of popped rice covered with honey to give to our New Year's visitors. My new clothes, from shoes to undergarments to dress had been bought and were in my closet, ready to wear. Our stack of red envelopes, ready to be filled with "lucky money" and sprigs of evergreen were ready to be packed. Our ancestors' altar had been set up in our living room. On our walls were red papers, with embossed calligraphy reading "fortune has arrived" and "always full" to denote that our family rice bowl and holdings were plentiful.
These familiar observances, so significant to me as a young girl in Sun Tak, are always with me this time of the year. And as we approach this, the Year of the Snake, 4699, another Chinese millennium year, which falls on January 24th, they come streaming back to me. Memories of our house with my mother and father and brother, and the relatives who would come visiting on New Year's Day. Memories of the many symbolic foods that we would prepare to be displayed, presented, eaten in observance of the day the Chinese believe signifies annually a new beginning.
For us these foods are rooted in religion, mythology and tradition, but before preparing them, we would purify our house.
Days were set aside as fortuitous for housecleaning and on such days our family was busy. Everything in the house was dusted thoroughly, including our images of Buddha, which normally were not touched. Heavy furniture was moved and accumulations of dust were removed, brought to the door and thrown out with much ceremony. With the dirt went the evil influences that might have accumulated during the year and, as everyone knew, hid in heaps of dust. This would have to be done before the New Year, because that day is also "the broom's day off."
There were certain foods indispensable to the New Year celebration for their meanings, meanings that went beyond taste and nourishment. In China there are many such foods eaten under the dictates of the writings of Confucius, by the beliefs of Buddhism and Taoism, and by mythology. All of these influenced our New Year menu, foods which separately and together carried wishes for good luck, continued prosperity, long life and particularly sweetness. We gave oranges and tangerines as gifts, and I still do, as gifts of sweetness. We ate foods covered with honey, stalks of sugar cane and "good luck" dumplings made with cane sugar, peanuts or sesame seed paste.
We would eat pomegranates, which we cut open not only to eat but also to look at the hundreds and hundreds of seeds in them. "Many many seeds mean many many children, many many boys," my mother and aunts used to say. And I remember saying to myself, "and girls."
When my grandmother, my Ah Paw, and grandfather came to our house, each of their thirteen
grandchildren would hold a cup of tea in readiness for them, and they would sip from each in turn before giving us red "lucky money" envelopes. We would give all of our guests sweets, roasted watermelon seeds, candied fruit rinds and steamed dough dumplings shaped like ancient coins, or taels, called yuen boh.
Our New Year feast, usually held on the eve of the important holiday would be filled with symbolism — fish for continued prosperity, chicken
as a symbol of the phoenix, of rebirth. We would eat clams, which to us
meant good fortune, oysters, good fortune in business. Noodles indicated
long life; green vegetables meant spring, which always begins on the first
day of the New Year; mushrooms for their tenaciousness in forcing themselves
up from the ground; and prawns, whose name, har, is the sound of laughter.
After these many years I still observe these pleasant traditions, and though these days I often eat my New Year banquets in restaurants, I still carry about envelopes of lucky money for the young of family and friends, and I still remember my home and family in Sun Tak.
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