Chinese New Year

Something that is typical to me about Chinese New Year are the red pockets. These are the small red envelopes with money, which you receive as kids from your parents. You put the envelope under your pillow when going to sleep and it will bring you luck for the coming year. 
Meiyee Chow
Student at Erasmus University Rotterdam

Happy Chinese New Year! EUR-student Meiyee Chow explains how the Chinese calendar works, why New Years is so important in China and why it is so special. 

Meiyee, could you tell us what Chinese New Year is exactly? 

'We follow two different calendars in China. One of them is the Western calendar, which we understand here as well. The other one also consists out of 12 months, but every month only has 28 or 29 days. That is why the year is about 15 days shorter than the year that we understand in the West. Every few years a double month appears, like a double April. 

All the holidays still take place according to the Chinese calendar, which is why the holidays fall on a different day each year in the Western calendar. This year, Chinese New Year begins on the February 5th. The celebration is 15 days long, because Chinese New Year is traditionally seen as the most important day of the year. Nowadays, people in China only have one week be off from work or school to celebrate the national holiday.'

About the calendar: how do the Chinese star signs work? 

'2019 is the year of the pig. In total there are 12 animals, who each represent one year. This is how we have a cycle of 12 year, which repeats itself. The meaning of the animals are comparable to Western star signs. Everyone who is born in the same year belongs to the same animal. Every animal has its own characteristics and based on those predictions about your future are made. A good tip for if you do not want to be rude, but still want to ask someone their age: ask their Chinese star sign!'

Back to the Chinese New Year. How is it celebrated? 

'Compared to The Netherlands, New Years is celebrate way more extravagantly in China. During Chinese New Year everyone is free of work or school, it is a time to be together with family, a little bit like Christmas in Western countries. A lot of people work far away from their families and don't see them very often. New Years is extra special because of this. For me, Chinese New Year is a day to be with family, to eat delicious food together and primarily  to enjoy each others company. Together you ensure for a nice start to the new year. 

What happens during the celebration? 

'Because the calendar is different over here, Chinese New Year never falls around the same time as holidays in The Netherlands. Everyone has to go to school or work and so, unfortunately, there is no time for an extensive party. That's why we usually celebrate it around the time of Western New Years or a weekend close to Chinese New Year. Then we visit family and have a delicious meal together. 

The day is usually spent making the dinner, my mother and aunts will make dumplings: 水饺. My cousins, my sisters and I play games, while our fathers prepare the fireworks. In the evening, we all eat together and our parents tell us random stories about almost everything. Everyone is enjoying each other's company. Then we go outside to light the fireworks together. At the end of the evening, the kids are given a red envelope, 红包 Hongbao, with money in it to symbolize good luck for the new year.'  

In which what does that differ (or not) from how you would celebrate it in China? 

'I was born in The Netherlands and also raised here. So, unfortunately, I have never celebrated Chinese New Year in China, but I have heard many stories from my parents and family. In China, people do get time off work or school during the holiday as it celebrates the getting together of families. The celebration also differs per family; there are not a lot of plans during the day and every family has its own traditions. For some that is watching TV, playing games or just a friendly catch-up. There are a couple of dishes which are specific to eat at Chinese New Year. On New Year's Eve, people usually eat fish, 魚, pronounced as yu. The word, 餘 yu, is very similar in terms of pronunciation. The second word means: "something left over", as it symbolizes the wish to have a lot left over for the new year, or an abundance of luck.'

What is a typical about Chinese New Year for you, like champagne is typical for Western New Years?

'What I love about Chinese New Year is that you can still recognize a lot of old traditions. Everything has a specific and beautiful meaning. Fireworks were meant to scare away the ghosts, this is why it was usually loud fireworks. The color red returns quite often and represents luck. Usually, you see a lot of red in the streets during New Years. 

Something that is typical to me about Chinese New Year are the red pockets. These are the small red envelopes with money, which you receive as kids from your parents. You put the envelope under your pillow when going to sleep and it will bring you luck for the coming year. 

The food we eat during Chinese New Year can in principle be eaten year-round, but during the celebrations it can't be missed out. In my family we usually eat dumplings, because everyone loves them. Furthermore, we also eat Niangao: 年糕, a type of rice cake. The literal translation is: "year cake". The word "cake" in Chinese is gao and it sounds similar to word 高,  which means "high". The meaning behind the cake is that every year will be even better than the year before. Again, an example of the beautiful symbolism and very appropriate for the New Year!'