As Chinese New Year approaches, it reminds me of when my grandma use to give us tangerines to put above our beds for good luck, and the all-time childhood favorite: red envelopes. We also had a platter of sweets including chocolates, candy, sweetened coconut, and nuts that we set out on a table for guests who visited our house.
Growing up in San Francisco with its huge Chinese community, it was impossible to miss the supermarkets filled with Chinese New Year decorations, sweets and boxes of oranges. Having these fruits displayed and enjoying them at home is thought to bring luck and wealth – a tradition that stems from the similar-sounding Chinese words for “gold” and “orange,” as well as “tangerine” and “luck.” Their leaves symbolize longevity, so my grandma always kept them intact when she presented them to us. But beware of grouping the fruits in four, as this is associated with death.
As the New Year approached, my parents always made sure that we all got haircuts and that the house was cleaned before the celebration. (Haircuts were not allowed on New Year’s Day because this would bring bad luck.) The nature of the Chinese word “hair” is similar to that meaning “prosperity.”
Now that I’m a mom, I try to keep the traditions alive for my children. The first thing I do is go to the neighborhood Chinese supermarket for cute decorations with the year of the animal on it; this year, it’s the Monkey. My favorite San Francisco market is May Wah on Clement Street – it’s a one-stop shop for all the Chinese New Year essentials. Once we arrive back home, my girls prepare our home for the New Year as if they were decorating for a themed party.
One of our favorite family activities is stuffing the red envelopes! These are presented at family and social gatherings such as holidays, weddings and Chinese New Year. The color red represents good luck and is said to ward off evil spirits. The amount of money stuffed in these envelopes can vary but should always end with an even number, as odd number sums are usually associated with funerals. Try to get to the bank early this year; if you don’t, the new bills will be gone. If you don’t have time to buy red envelopes or are just feeling crafty, you can also make them at home with your children. It’s pretty simple and a fun family activity. Check out this site for instructions.
This time of year brings back many fond childhood memories for me, and revives special family customs. I can only hope that I will pass them on to my two girls, so that one day they can share the Chinese New Year traditions we are establishing with their own families.