My son was only 18 months old when Chinese New Year approached last year. From his perch on my shoulders, he gasped in amazement at the dragon dancers advancing along Market Street during San Francisco’s Chinese New Year parade, but he was too young to understand the cause for all the fuss.
Now a year later, my energetic toddler surprised me one morning shortly after Christmas by announcing his Chinese New Year to-do list. “I need to clean the house, cut my hair and buy red envelopes,” he chirped happily in between bites of oatmeal. Lessons from the picture books about Chinese New Year we’d been reading together before bed had apparently sunk in.
In this simple moment shared across the breakfast table, my wife and I realized that we would soon be celebrating our first “real” Chinese New Year as a family. Until recent years, I have to admit that I wouldn’t have been exactly sure what to do.
Rewinding for a moment, I’ll share that while my mother is Chinese and my father has held a lifelong fascination with China, Chinese culture wasn’t a big part of my childhood in Connecticut. I embraced my Chinese heritage as an adult, first with long days exploring Chinatown, then with Cantonese classes in Hong Kong and now as a parent trying to pass a cultural inheritance to my son.
All of this is to say that you’re not alone if you feel like you don’t have a deep cultural playbook to draw from when it comes time to celebrate Chinese holidays. I’ve found that this feeling is surprisingly common among young Chinese Americans and other multicultural families like ours, especially as family connections to China weaken over time.
In keeping with Chinese New Year’s spirit of renewal, my wife and I are approaching this year’s holiday as a fresh start for the cultural traditions we want to preserve in our family. We’re emphasizing the holiday’s most relatable themes, showing our son the elements of Chinese culture we love most and building bridges between Chinese and American culture.
Here are a few examples of what I mean:
1. Chinese New Year customs focus on clearing away the past year’s bad luck and preparing for welcoming good luck in the year ahead. We’re following this step-by-step planning checklist to tick off tasks like cleaning our house, filling our pantry and decorating with bright red good luck banners. Each action reflects the belief that it’s always possible to start anew.
2. My wife and I love Chinese food, which opens pathways for our son to help in the kitchen, learn bits of language and ask questions about what he sees at Chinese markets. At Chinese New Year, we’ll use our New Year’s Eve reunion dinner to show him how special foods create feelings of abundance and prosperity. Naturally, these traditional dumplings representing gold ingots are on the menu.
3. This year, due to a scheduling quirk, New Year’s Eve falls on Super Bowl Sunday, one of the most American of celebrations. We’ll use this opportunity to break with tradition to invite friends to join what’s normally a family-focused affair. It’ll be a great way to share generous Chinese New Year customs like gifting red envelopes to children and welcoming guests with a tray of togetherness.
I’ve frequently heard Chinese New Year compared to the American Thanksgiving, in terms of the holiday’s focus on family togetherness, a spirit of generosity and gratitude for life’s blessings. If we can convey an inkling of that feeling to our son, then I’ll consider our first “real” Chinese New Year a success.
For my family, Chinese New Year will be an opportunity to use timeless cultural traditions as inspiration to create a celebration that’s uniquely our own. I wish the same good fortune for your family, along with health, happiness and prosperity in the Year of the Monkey.
Wesley Radez is the founder of ChineseHolidays101.com, a web site dedicated to helping families celebrate Chinese Holidays in the United States. The site has more than 100 family activities, recipes and crafts to help time-strapped parents share Chinese culture with their families during holidays like Chinese New Year, the Dragon Boat Festival, the Mid-Autumn Festival and many more. He and his family live in Oakland, CA.