Chinese New Year traditions try to lure good fortune, longevity

Friday, January 27, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 12:34 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 6, 2008

The Chinese New Year is a time to start fresh. To ensure a prosperous new year, many Chinese people follow traditions meant to invite good fortune into their lives. Although different regions in China have their own unique practices, here are some customs found throughout the Chinese New Year celebrations.

House cleaning: Usually, a week before the New Year begins, people clean their homes thoroughly. In addition to symbolizing a new start, cleaning also allows people to get the mundane jobs out of the way before the New Year begins so they can actually celebrate.

Symbols of longevity: Chinese people try to incorporate “long things” into their celebrations to represent longevity. People get haircuts so they don’t “cut off their luck” in the first few weeks of the new year. Long noodles, also a symbol of longevity, are often served with the traditional Chinese New Year meal, which varies from region to region.

Fish: Traditional in Southern China, fish is a symbol of prosperity. In fact, the word for fish has the same meaning as “have enough, have more than you need, have left over,” said Mike Wong, owner of Hong Kong Market in Columbia. Fish (yu) sounds similar to the word meaning abundance, or riches.

Nian Gao: This sticky rice dessert translates to “annual cake” and is found more in the southern part of China. Superstition has it that the kitchen god returns to heaven a week before the New Year to report on the family he has been watching. Chinese people feed him Nian Gao — either to get him to give a favorable evaluation or to make his mouth too full to say much when he returns to heaven.

Gifts: Traditionally, money is given out in red envelopes, called Hong Bao, to children and older people. If you are visiting another person’s home, you bring a gift for good fortune, which can range from flowers to fruits.

Reunion dinner: The New Year is a chance to reconnect with family. Shaoming Zou, president of the Mid-Missouri Chinese Association, said that the new year is the busiest traveling time for people going to and from China for celebrations and reunion dinners. “Right now in China is big rush to go home,” he said.

Nian: The dragon-like monster, so often the symbol of Chinese New Year celebrations, comes from an old myth about a monster that terrorized villagers. Nian is frightened by the color red and loud noises, which is why people decorate their homes in red and set off fireworks.

Jiaozi: A boiled dumpling, Jiaozi is traditionally eaten right after midnight at the beginning of the new year. A coin is hidden inside one of the dumplings, and the person who bites into it is said to be the luckiest person of the upcoming year.

Round foods: Luck is round in China, says Phil Wood, a member of the Mid-Missouri Chinese Association. Because the calendar is based on the lunar cycle, Chinese cuisine features many round items during the New Year celebration.

Hard-boiled eggs cooked in tea and fruit — especially oranges (symbolizing wealth) and tangerines (for good luck) are especially popular.

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