Celebrating China: A Simple Chinese New Year

January 25, 2016 January 2016 Feature - Celebrating China, Kelly 11 Comments

It’s the single most important holiday of the entire year there. Businesses close and trains literally overflow as people all over China journey home for Chinese New Year or Spring Festival. Despite the rising number of Starbucks scattered about big cities and iPhones all over, traditions not all that different from stockings hung by the chimney with care still abound.

In the weeks leading up to Spring Festival, families clean every corner of their homes to rid them of huiqi or unclean spirits that may have collected over the year and prepare for a new start. Bright red scrolls printed with poetic couplets about luck and fortune are posted proudly beside front doors. The sound and smell of fireworks to frighten evil spirits fill the air. Families gather together around the table for long noodles symbolizing long life and round dumplings shaped like the full moon symbolizing the family unit and perfection with a finale of a whole fish symbolizing abundance which is fully prepared but is not meant to be eaten.

Both families who are actually living in abundance and those who are not give special gifts packaged in 红包 or hongbao, a decorated red envelope. Anywhere between a few yuan to hundreds of yuan are put in these envelopes in lucky even number increments and given as sacrificial gifts typically from older people to younger ones. The recipients gather all their envelopes, put them under their pillows, and open them all 7 days later.

For 15 days, centered around February 8th (where it falls this year), about 1.4 billion people (20% of the world) put everyday life on hold. The poor, the migrants, the businessmen, the party members, the students, young and old…it doesn’t matter who you are. The celebration of Spring Festival softens lines of distinction.

From where I sit right now, typing my thoughts from my favorite chair, I can see toy horses that my daughter carefully set up to stand together as a family. Her older brother seems to have a hobby of tripping over them, while her sister complains that they look like they’re staring at her. But, there they remain, none of us willing to break up the equine family. A child’s rocking chair sits close by with a blanket piled up below it where she was snuggled up yesterday. I can see our family picture framed on our shelf — a mom, a dad, three white kids who will be taller than me by next week, and Lydia, our Chinese daughter.

Some years, our home has been seemingly covered in red paper decorations and all sorts of festive stuff in my efforts to pronounce Xīnnián kuàilè. I’ve made 4-foot long dragon cakes and sheep/goat/ram cupcakes (all with loads more sugar than the Chinese like). With all we have going on right now, I’m not sure how many lanterns and scrolls I’ll end up hanging. And, I can’t even wrap my head around making some sort of monkey-themed dessert this year.

But, I’ve come to understand that celebrating Spring Festival in America as Americans who have a Chinese daughter doesn’t have to look like a Pinterest-worthy party. When we adopted our daughter nearly 6 years ago, we promised that we’d honor her history, a promise we take to heart; we did not promise to make dragon cakes and give out red envelopes to her first-grade class. There’s nothing wrong with those things; they can be ways to honor her history but so could reading a children’s book together and simple conversation.


Lydia with tiger hat (1)


I can’t give my family a Spring Festival experience like one they’d get in China. And, honestly, I don’t know if I’d entirely want to. But, as we eat Chinese takeout with chopsticks or read a silly picture book about a runaway wok, whatever pomp and circumstance we end up with for Spring Festival this year, I will be saying these words to my daughter:

You are Chinese. We see that. We know that. We love that about you. We are not Chinese. But, we love all things Chinese not because of loud fireworks or envelopes with money but because of you. You are what makes us love Chinese things. And, we’re so glad you are a part of our family.



11 responses to “Celebrating China: A Simple Chinese New Year”

  1. LeeAnn says:

    Thanks for talking about this in detail. I admit I haven’t researched it yet, but I honestly had no idea what they did for this tradition. We are adopting a girl who will be 11 when we get her home, so, although she has lived in an orphanage the whole time, she will probably long for this like an American child would long for Christmas. Did you do traditional Chinese writings on your scrolls? It seems like so much to learn…at least the 1st time! Thanks.

    • Hello, LeeAnn! Congratulations! I am certainly not an expert on Chinese New Year, but just thought I would share a couple thoughts as a mom of a Chinese daughter who came home as an almost 9 year old. Last year, our first Chinese New Year together, Lucy had only been home a month, but we managed to learn from her that to her the red envelopes were an important part of Chinese New Year – to her. We shared a nice dinner at home together of Chinese (inspired) foods. 🙂 This year, she asked if we could make dumplings or jiaozi. So we will share a Chinese (inspired) meal with some friends and try our hand at making dumplings together. I think Kelly is right… it won’t be just like China, but it can make your daughter feel special that you are adding new traditions to your family that honor her and her history.

  2. Carla says:

    Wilton has a monkey shaped cake pan. You could make a monkey cake. Or make monkey bread.

  3. Moya says:

    I think when we make that promise- and even if we did not- that part of our responsibility as white parents of kids of color is to expose our kids to their birth culture. That is not about pinterest worthy parties but it is about exposing our kids to people who look like them and celebrating their culture. They come to us and are stripped of everything. Listen to the adult adoptees. Heaven knows things are NEVER pinterest worthy here but we celebrate every year and while it is not as good as her first family would have, we invite Chinese friends ( racial mirrors) and we research meals and traditions. And over the years they have become part of our family traditions. Because that is what our kids deserve.

  4. Anita says:

    Chinese New Year and other Chinese holidays are a big part of Chinese culture. For anyone that has adopted from China or that is considering adoption, it’s important to always celebrate these holidays. Find celebrations with the local Asian community, even if it means going out of your way to do so. You’ll find it’s much different(and more authentic) than the things you’ll find on Pinterest. That’s what we do with our girls now and we all enjoy it immensely, and it also is good for them to be around so many more Chinese mirrors, not just other adopted Chinese kids. Yes, they are Americans, but they are still and always will be Chinese first. And we really need to embrace their Chinese heritage and culture all year. It’s all part of being a transracial family. It’s our job as parents to these wonderful children.

    • Sharon H says:

      Indeed it is. Well written. We are not pintrest worthy, nor authentic but are lucky to live somewhere with a huge Chinese population so there are plenty of things for us to do besides our FCC event to celebrate this important holiday with our kids!

  5. Kelly says:

    What a blessing to me to hear that!

  6. Carol says:

    We just came home with our Chinese daughter this past September. She is 7 years old, and learning English rapidly. She has refused, on several occasions to speak in her native language with others here who could understand her. We feel as if she wants nothing to do with China, and she has no way of telling me if she would like to celebrate this holiday or not. What would you recommend we do? I don’t know what would be best for her. Thank you!

  7. Laura Barta says:

    Thank you for this. It captures both the love and devotion you have for your daughter and for who she is. Pinterest is lovely, but love is the real deal and shown in many small ways.

  8. Amy says:

    We have celebrated CNY in a lot of different ways. Some years we have eaten at a Chinese buffet, while other years we have gone to done online activities or read books. This year we are cooking a whole lot of Chinese food with dear friends who will roll egg rolls and fry dumplings with us. It has turned into a celebration of our little community of friends. But it really isn’t about the food or the year of the monkey or any of that. It is about saying to our kids that where they come from is important to us, and we love China, and we love that they are Chinese. Thanks for expressing this so beautifully in your post! None of my parties are Pinterest worthy, and that’s ok!

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