Happy Chinese New Year! There are so many traditions in Chinese culture in general, it’s hard to keep up. When I was young, I remember my mom displaying bright orange tangerines and making special Chinese cakes during the New Year but I never asked what they meant. Because this is our first Chinese New Year as a married couple, I think it’s a good idea to learn the traditions and their meanings so we can carry them on. My mom and aunt helped break down a few of the meanings.
In Cantonese, visiting your relatives on New Years day is called bi nin. Bi means “to visit and show respect” and nin means “the year”. We start at my grandmother’s house, then visit each aunt and uncle’s house from eldest to youngest. It’s at these visits that we present gifts or offerings.
First rule on Chinese New Year, wear red. Red is a symbol of good luck and fortune (and pretty much everything positive). Conversely don’t wear white, it symbolizes death and mourning. Lai See (red envelopes) are given by married couples to those younger than them. You can put any amount in them but the money should be new (you can order new money from the bank). When giving or receiving the lai see, hold the envelope with both hands. Cha or tea is served at the bi nin visits.
Some things to include in your bag of offerings are fresh vegetables, specifically asparagus which symbolizes your wealth coming to you smoothly in the new year. Lettuce symbolizes growing wealth. A lot of meanings derive from the similarity the words have with each other. In Cantonese, the word lettuce sounds a lot like the word for “rising wealth”. Some other traditional items to give are canned fish, dry mushrooms and dry scallops.
The meaning of giving apples is to wish a safe year ahead. In Cantonese, the words “tangerine” and “gold” have similar sounds so giving tangerines symbolizes wishing the person plenty of gold or wealth. Giving tangerines with the leaves still attached means you hope all their wishes come true. After receiving apples and tangerines, these can be displayed prominently in the house during the holiday.
Candies are given to wish a sweet year ahead. These are some of the sweets I remember my mom having in the house and the panda cookies are my dad’s favorite. Of course, the types of traditional and new Chinese candies are endless. Not to mention the pastries (which needs an entirely different post).
The proper Cantonese new year greeting sounds like this: Gung Hay Fought Choy, Sun Leen Fai Lock (say the second part if you really want to impress someone). If you want to learn how to pronounce and read Cantonese, check out this amazing website. These are traditions celebrated by my family and may differ in other households. Photos by jforjamie.