New Year, New World! The Year of Pig

Is it February already?  Before you start counting all of the New Year’s resolutions you’ve broken this year and begin thinking of new ones, you have a second chance for a do-over! Let's take a quick peek into how the Lunar New Year is celebrated around the world.

If you are in China at the time of New Year and hear people wishing you, “Gung Hey Fat Choi,” don’t get worried! You are not being called names or experiencing fat shaming.  That is Cantonese for Happy New Year!  It means congratulations and prosperity for the year ahead.  

Since Hong Kong is a mix of many cultures that is influenced by the West and has a major impact on Chinese tradition, the New Year is celebrated twice in the region.  Apart from the calendar year celebration, they also celebrate Chinese New Year, which comes during the first day until the fifteenth day of the first lunar month, and varies every year based on lunar movements.  In 2019, the year of the Pig, will begin on February 5 and end with the Lantern Festival on February 19.  

While New Year’s in the West is celebrated for only one day, with festivities the evening before, traditional Chinese New Year lasts for two weeks and is embedded with many rituals that people still observe to this day.  

Preparations for Chinese New Year begin about a week in advance.  Food is prepared ahead of time, because no cooking takes place during the first five days of the New Year. However, the most important step in getting ready is cleaning the house.  The custom is to sweep dust to the middle of the room and out the back door, which symbolizes sweeping away bad luck.  

On New Year’s Eve, Chinese families traditionally gather for a large meal.  They stay up late in order to welcome the New Year. At midnight, family members fling open doors and windows to let the old year out. They also set off firecrackers hoping to cast away bad luck and bring forth good luck.  The next day is generally a quiet day in China, since cooking and cleaning have already been done, and most people stay home or pay visits to friends.

In Hong Kong, Chinese New Year is a big occasion and people celebrate in a grand way.  On February 6, Victoria Harbour is the star of the show with one of the biggest and best fireworks displays in the world,  lasting almost 25 minutes.  Literally thousands will gather and line both sides of the harbour to take it all in.  

To get a bird’s eye view of the action, revelers come early to ensure a prime viewing spot on the shores of Central, Tsim Sha Tsui, or Wan Chai. A lucky few who make reservations months in advance can enjoy the festivities aboard a harbour cruise on the Star Ferry or a traditional Chinese junk boat.

While folks in the West welcome the New Year by drinking champagne and maybe eating black-eyed peas and greens for luck and wealth, the Chinese emphasize feasting and mark the New Year with a large dinner meal that typically includes dumplings, prawns, dried oysters and other types of seafood.  For Lantern Festival at the end of the New Year celebration, they eat a soup containing balls of glutinous rice that represent the full moon and perfection and are intended to bring good luck.  

Since Chinese New Year is also a time for gift giving, another common tradition involves gifting red envelopes called "Lai See" that contain “lucky money.” Usually married couples give these gifts to children, single people, and servants of family.  The money given can be a token amount, but should be an even number. The numbers 8 and 88 are especially lucky because the word “eight” sounds like the word that means “prosperity.”

Gathering as many generations of family as possible for the holiday is the strongest tradition associated with Chinese New Year.  Many Chinese people return to villages where they grew up to be with their extended families.  Remembering and showing respect for ancestors is a vital part of Chinese New Year celebrations.  Families place food and burn incense on home altars devoted to those who have passed on.  

The 15th day of Chinese New Year is known as the Lantern Festival.  It is celebrated with parades, dances, and of course, displays of lanterns.  This is also when you are likely to see a dragon dance, with chains of performers snaking through the streets under a cloth dragon costume.  In China, the dragon is a symbol of prosperity and luck, and the dance is a final attempt to attract good luck for the coming year.  

Despite the number of differences there is in New Year’s celebrations around the world, there is one common theme that unites them all:  family and friends.  No matter the country, religion, or race, New Year’s is a time for family reunions and traditions, friend gatherings, reflection, and reaffirming bonds.  Gung Hey Fat Choy – Happy New Year from Hong Kong!


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