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New Year: Once A Fifteen-Day Holiday

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Holidays and Celebrations

Spring Volume: 2018 Issue: 25(1) pages: 8 to 13

In China, New Year is called ‘Spring Festival.’ This most celebrated and most important holiday used to be the longest annual one many years ago. Then, it was a fifteen day one that ended on Lantern Festival. That is no more. The government now guarantees only three days off. Some are luckier as their boos may give them a five day vacation. A few get an entire week off, but that is neither common nor universal. Some get no days off then as they are workers in food service. Many eat out on this holiday; lots of staff are needed to cook for them and serve them so they may get comp time days later or extra money to work.

Some foods are eaten for nourishment, others popular for a particular holiday, still others eaten for renewal or rebirth. There are some with special meanings or wishes for this New Year holiday; and many of these are wishes for prosperity or long life. (See page 13.)

The New Year is time for forgiveness, time to repay all debts; and most do so if they can. This is a holiday when, if at all possible, all generations gather for a ‘Reunion Dinner’ held on New Year’s eve. It is a meal with special foods, some made with special or expensive foods, or foods whose preparation requires lots of time and/or effort.

The origin of the New Year holiday dates back to China’s ancient agricultural society thousands of years ago. There, some people did believe that a fierce monster called Nian would create havoc on this day. This idea did frighten them. They did discover he was afraid of the color red, of bright lights, and of loud noises so they used these fears to frighten him and keep him away from them and their homes. They used firecrackers, now illegal in many places. Many folk wore red, many made loud noises, many used bright lights, and/or did other things to scare him away. Some even did one or more of these things even if they no longer believed he existed.

New Year holiday, beside getting together is also time to think of the coming of Spring, planting, and wishes for a good harvest. Spring planting does start soon after this holiday.

For the New Year, many give good wishes and tangerines or oranges. Both are symbolic of gold, good health, good luck, and prosperity. Children, the ill, the infirm, and the elderly receive red envelopes called au pau or hong bao with money in them. These they receive just before or during the first few days of the New Year.

There are some who believe an older legend, one of the King coming to see them at the Sun and Moon Pavilion. They might purchase fresh flowers and decorate there, do so in their homes and/or in nearby temples. These, too, are hopes and wishes for a prosperous year. In their homes, many put up pictures of the God of Longevity. Some call him the Sun-and-Moon God. In addition, at home and at temple, they might make offerings of cooked rice and newly brewed alcoholic beverages.

On the 8th day of the last month of the old year, many make and eat laba. This is a porridge made with eight or more ingredients. Some do this in celebration of Sakyamuni, the founder of Buddhism. They believe he attained immortality on this day. In the week or weeks before New Year’s Day, they prepare for the coming year cleaning his and all statues, their homes, too. They get rid of every speck of dirt as sweeping on New Year’s Day and until Lantern Festival fifteen days later can sweep away upcoming luck.

Before the New Year, they also make or buy new clothes, take down last year’s door posters and Door Generals. There are for the red-faced god called Qin Shubao, and the black-faced one known as Weichi Jingde. They also write cards and remove the picture of the Kitchen God displayed on or near their hearth. Zao Jun, this god spent the entire year watching them and over them.

These they commonly do on the 23rd or 24th day of the last month of the old year; when then they plan to send him to the Jade God of Heaven to report about the family he lived with all year. On what some call the ‘Preliminary Eve,’ this Kitchen God, who some call the ‘Prince of the Oven’ will be sent skyward to report about them to the God of Heaven. Before he leaves, someone in the family will smear his lips with a sugary paste so he only can say sweet things about the family. When sending him to heaven, his image will be burned, usually on or after the 23rd or 24th day of the last month of the old year, as will posters with words such as ‘health,’ ‘wealth,’ ‘longevity,’ even ‘Spring.’

These will be replaced with new ones by New Year’s Day, as will any couplets or charms such as those carved on peach or another wood. Some may have been hung upside down for luck. One elderly chap told us they are symbolic acts of veneration for their ancestors. Others may recite special incantations loudly so their ancestors can hear them.

Some men may go to a temple to make sacrifices to their ancestors for the family when convenient, not at a specific day, date, or time. There they will burn incense or paper money and recite some incantations. Others may do so at ancestral shrines in their homes.

Before the Kitchen God is sent to heaven, some families prepare a special dinner to share with many sweet dishes to keep his disposition that way. When his image is ready, family members throw beans on the roof to simulate horses hooves taking him there. Some light torches or incense to help him find his way, others may say prayers for a lucky and safe trip there and a safe return the following week.

An article by Wonona Chang in a 1995 issue shares more about this holiday. Read it on this magazine’s website at www.flavorandfortune.com and the recipes her family made then. Also read the article Erin Moriarity wrote. It is on the same site but from another time. She was a gardener-in-residence at the Queens Botanical Garden, and shares spring symbols and tells of the common octagonal prosperity tray served to guests during this holiday.

Before New Year’s Eve, many families make special doufu treats, some kill or purchase one or more animals such as a pig, sheep, chicken, and/or duck for this holiday. Some purchase flour and ferment it to make the special dumplings, or they purchase them and libations, too. Some buy hair vegetable which is called fa cai, and other auspicious foods for that Reunion Dinner. They serve them then and during the days before Lantern Festival.

All family members who can, come home to share this extravagant dinner, eat dumplings shaped like ancient gold ingots as wishes for a prosperous year. Family, friends, and visitors during these two weeks dine on them. In addition many give or get oranges or tangerines during these days with similar wishes.

After the Reunion Dinner, most stay up that night to worship deceased ancestors, show respect and reverence for them, eat lots more, even sing and dance through the night. They are welcoming Gou or the New Year. In 2018 it started on the 16th of February, is called the Year of the Dog, and will end in February 2019. The following year will be the Pig Year, and it will begin the 12th of February 2019. After it will come years in the order they came to the Buddha or the Emperor, which ever legend you believe.

During and more after the New Year day, the streets are filled with people, drums, and noisemakers scaring away evil spirits, lion dancers collecting lettuce as money for charities, and other things popularly increasing everyone’s holiday spirits. Before these holidays, some help make or repair the costumes for these events and things used to collect charity monies. Incidentally, the word for lettuce does sound like the word for ‘rising fortunes’ and explains its use by those collecting it for charities.

This is the Dog Year. Their naming legend is for those animals who came to the emperor (or Buddha). We are told he asked a dozen of them to race to him on the second moon after the winter solstice. The winner was the rat followed by the ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig, in that order. Their reward, each was named for a Chinese year in the order they got to him.

In Korea, Japan, and Vietnam they also use animal year names, but are not always the same ones. These lunar calendars, now called ‘‘lunisolar;’ all repeat their twelve animals every year. The Chinese do so five times making for a sixty year cycle. That is why sixty is such an important number to them, and on a sixtieth birthday, they celebrate having reached that milestone year. In New York City’s Chinatown, New Year festivities last from four to fifteen days, and after the third one many stores reopen. Chinatown is then full of potential customers as they welcome the Kitchen God back (usually after one week). Many a boss does give red envelopes to each of his or her workers with money in them. Their workers can use this annual gift, if they get time off, to return to their ancestral homes, enjoy their family Reunion Dinner, and if so inclined, participate in New Year festivities.

In many a Chinatown, most but not all businesses close those first three days, some do so for up to a week to allow their workers vacation or to spend some or all of the holiday with their local or further-afield extended families.

After eating their Reunion Dinner, many stay up and leave their doors and windows open to let out the old year. Many parents let their children stay up and do not discipline them that day not wanting to take away their luck. No one uses knives or scissors which might cut away good fortune during this holiday. On New Year’s Day almost everyone wears new or spotlessly clean pressed clothes, visits their eldest relative first, then the next eldest, etc.; and on the day after this, called tsuo-ke or hui-men, married daughters return to their mother’s home, those married in the past year come with their new husband bringing gifts for all.

On the third day of the New Year, most go to bed early to put them in good mind to return to their daily routines. Many do not completely return to normal until after the Lantern Festival holiday.

Family and friends visit each other during the days until Lantern Festival Day and wish each other health, prosperity, and happiness for the coming year. On the fifteenth day, many parade with lanterns, kites, candles, or lights; an activity once recommended by one of their emperors.

Chinese New Year is celebrated in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macao, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, Bhutan, Malaysia, the Phillippines, and all places with large Chinese populations, and in every Chinatown in the world. While dumplings shaped like gold ingots are the most popular food in China’s north, Southern Chinese make and eat nian guo, their New Year cake. That word is a homophone meaning ‘to reach ‘higher and higher.’’ Many buy and make a whole yu or fish. It is the homophone for ‘abundance,’ something everyone wants for the coming year. They serve it whole not to cut into any luck that might come their way.

Some countries with large Chinese populations number or name these years differently. Those that do might start from the 3rd millennium BCE because they believe the Yellow Emperor’s reign began then. As, not all are in agreement, so they might call this year 4710, 4718, or 4658.

Most, but not all Chinese, use a lunar calendar with months of thirty days and twelve months. These years need two leap years with thirteen months once every five years. As not all agree as to the number of days or months, not even how many days their shops should be closed, either.

For those who wish to offer auspicious greetings to family or friends, there are more than four appropriate wishes, but we suggest four with four syllables each in Chinese. For those wanting to prepare a dish typical for this holiday, recipes follow made with fa cai which in Cantonese sounds like ‘becoming prosperous.’ This dark green vegetable, usually sold dry and black, does look like hair. In English it is called ‘hair vegetable.’

So next year, wish your Chinese friends gung hei fa cai which is wishing them prosperity, and serve them this vegetable. First soak it, then cook it in an auspicious dish. Fa cai grows in the Gobi Desert, the Qinghai Plateau, and the Mongolian Steppes. It has been overharvested, so many governments do limit its harvest, so if you want some, do get yours early. Below are those greetings you can share with their translations.

Ying Chun Jie Fu:
Greet New Year and Encounter happiness

Fu Shou Shuang Quan:
May Happiness and Longevity Be Complete

Jin Yu Man Tang:
May Your Wealth Come and Fill a Hall

Ji Qing You Yu:
May Your Happiness be Without Limit

Lantern Festival is the last day of the New Year holiday, and the 15th day of the first lunar month of the year. Adults and children make or purchase lanterns, some get kites to fly. Either can have a candle or another light source in it, and when done flying these kites, they cut their strings and do allow them to fly to heaven.

The custom of lighting lanterns came into being as early as the Han Dynasty which was more than two thousand years ago. Most fly them after dark, and some say this is the highlight of their holiday. Homemade dragons or huge kites are held aloft by many young men. They can dance as they guide them through the streets.

The custom of their being lit and paraded around may have begun as early as the Tang Dynasty as a celebration for the coronation of Emperor Wendi who reigned (179 - 157 BCE), or when Zhou Bo paved the way for his enthronement crushing a rebellion, or maybe it could have been when Wendi walked out of his palace and joined the common folk, or when after he was seriously ill but recovered thanks to a necromancer who helped him with no medication.

We read that an altar was built for sacrifices to the Gods on this 15th day of the first lunar month, and/or when Emperor Ming Di, whose reign began in 58 CE, so he ordered them lit to celebrate his recovery.

During the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907 CE), this holiday was called ‘Lantern Fair’ and some say that was when it became a large celebration. Another possibility is during the reign of Emperor Xuan Zong in the middle of this dynasty when he ordered fifty thousand lanterns lit. Many say that since then, this festival grew into the big event it is today.

There are others who call this day Chinese Valentine’s Day or Yuen Siu. For that, there is no holiday from work but taking advantage of this day, young folk do celebrate, parade with lanterns or kites, wish friends, family, and neighbors good luck, and enjoy the spirit of the holiday. Some young men give their sweetheart a token of their love.

Thus, many Chinese celebrate this festive day in different ways. Chinese minority populations often celebrate it for three days. Most are not off from work, but thousands of years ago maybe they were. Older folk care more than young folk about this holiday. Everyone seems to, and most participate one way or another.

Other Chinese holidays will be discussed in future issues of Flavor and Fortune. Should we miss one of your favorites, please tell us about it, share how you and your family celebrates it and share your recipes, too.

New Year Cake

4 cups glutinous rice flour
1 and 1/3 cups brown sugar
1 Tablespoon lard or another solid shortening
1 cup vegetable oil
Golden Syrup for dipping or spreading on the diamond-shaped cake pieces


1. Sift the flour, then dissolve the brown sugar into one and a half cups boiling water, and slowly add the flour into this.
2. Grease an eight-inch cake pan with the shortening, and fill it with the flour-sugar-water mixture. In a steamer, steam this over boiling water for two and a half hours. Then remove it from the steamer and cool to room temperature. Then cover it and refrigerate overnight or for at least eight hours until it hardens, then cut into diamond-shaped pieces.
3. Heat a wok or fry pan, and add the vegetable oil and shallow-fry the cake pieces on each side until golden brown. Then serve hot, warm with the Golden Syrup for dipping; or spread some on their tops and serve.

Hair Seaweed A Prosperity Vegatable

1 pound firm doufu
10 large Chinese black mushrooms, soaked until soft in one cup warm water
4 ounces bean thread noodles
1 ounce dry hair vegetable, also known as black moss, soaked in warm water half an hour, then cut into two-inch lengths
3/4 pound Napa cabbage cut into one-inch pieces
1 cup vegetable oil
1 teaspoon coarse salt
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
3 Tablespoons Chinese rice wine
1 cup chicken or vegetable broth
3 Tablespoons thin and dark soy sauce, mixed
3 Tablespoons oyster sauce
3 Tablespoons yellow bean sauce
1 Tablespoon sesame oil


1. Cut doufu into one-inch cubes, squeezing out any excess water from them.
2. Squeeze the mushrooms reserving the soaking water, discard their stems, then sliver their tops.
3. Soak bean thread noodles and black moss separately, in warm water for half an hour, then squeeze and discard these waters.
4. Heat wok or fry pan, add oil, they fry doufu for five minutes, tossing them gently all the time; then drain them on paper towels.
5. Add mushrooms and stir-fry for two minutes, then add the cabbage, salt and pepper, hair vegetable, rice wine, broth, and all the sauces. Cover and simmer for twenty minutes, then serve.

Steamed Whole Fish

3 Tablespoons vegetable or peanut oil
2 teaspoons sesame oil
2 Tablespoons thin soy sauce
2 Tablespoons Shao Xing wine
2 Tablespoons peeled shredded fresh ginger
1 teaspoon salt
dash ground white pepper
2 to 3 pounds whole fish, scaled and gutted, but with the head and tail left on
3 scallions, angle sliced
1 Tablespoon chopped coriander


1. Whisk smaller amount of oil with the sesame oil, soy sauce, wine, ginger, salt, and pepper.
2. Put fish in a heat-proof dish, and pour this whisked mixture in and over it.
3. Put this dish on a wire rack in a steamer and steam the fish covered for twenty minutes or until it flakes testing it with a fork.
4. Heat the remaining oil and pour it over the fish, then remove the fish carefully to a pre-heated dish on a serving platter. Then garnish it with the scallions and coriander, and serve.

Ten Stir-Fry Vegetables

5 large dried black mushrooms, soaked until soft, stems discarded, and sliced thin
24 dried tiger lily buds, soaked until soft, each cut in half
5 dried bean curd sticks, soaked until soft, thinly angle cut
5 slices fresh ginger, sliced thin
½ cup peeled carrot, thinly sliced
½ cup peeled lotus root, thinly sliced, each slice cut in half
½ cup canned bamboo shoots, thinly sliced, each slice cut in half
½ cup celery, thinly angle sliced
20 snow peas, strings discarded, each thinly angle cut
½ cup canned gingko nuts, each halved
1/8 teaspoon ground white pepper
2 ounces bean threads
1 cup and 3 Tablespoons vegetable oil, separated
2 Tablespoons cornstarch
2 teaspoons sesame oil
2 teaspoons dark soy sauce
2 teaspoons granulated sugar
½ teaspoon coarse salt
1/8 teaspoon ground white pepper


1. Prepare the top ten vegetables, but do not mix them together. Then divide the bean threads in half, soaking half until soft, then cut them in two-inch pieces.
2. Heat the cup of vegetable oil in a wok or deep pan, and fry the dry bean thread pieces for one minute until they expand, then immediately drain and place them on paper towels.
3. In a small bowl, mix cornstarch and three tablespoons cold water, add the soy sauce, sesame oil, sugar, salt and pepper, and bring this to the boil stirring it well. Then set it aside.
4. Heat a wok, add the fresh ginger slices in any remaining oil from the bean threads, and fry the ten vegetables one by one, each with one tablespoon of cold water added for one minute until the water boils out. Remove them one by one to a single large bowl, and do the same for the bean threads. Then, mix them all together in that bowl.
5. Heat a clean wok and put the bowl of vegetables into it and stir-fry them until any remaining water stops sizzling, then add the cornstarch mixture and stir-fry all the sauce thickens, then serve.

Symbolic Foods for New Year and All Year

Many Chinese believe the foods listed below, when served during Chinese New Year, are special wishes for their ancestors, the Kitchen God and the Jade Emperor in Heaven. Here are just twenty of them. (JMN)

Apple or ping guo is for wisdom and peace

Banana or xiang jiao is for wishes of brilliance at school and/or work

Black moss or fa cai is also called hair vegetable and is for wealth

Chicken or ji rou if whole is particularly loved for joyous family togetherness

Fish or yu, also when whole is for surplus prosperity

Grapes or pu tao is for many descendants and family harmony

Lettuce or shneg cai is for prosperity

Melon or gua, when candied is for good health

Noodle or mian tiao is for long life

Onion or yang cong is for cleverness

Orange or gan ju is for gold

Peach or tao is for immortality

Pineapple or feng li is for gambling luck

Prawn or da xia is for liveliness

Rice or mi fan is for linking heaven and earth

Sweets or tang gua is for safety and good fortune

Tofu or dou fu gan, when dried is for blessing the house

Tangerine or ju is for luck

Walnuts or he tao ren is for the entire family’s happiness

Water chestnut or bi qi is for unity

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