When we began celebrating Chinese New Year together after my son was born nearly five years ago, my wife and I did what many young families do when establishing their traditions. We carried forward a few practices from my parents and incorporated elements from our local community, the same way we had for Christmas and Thanksgiving.
We definitely had fun during our first few Chinese New Year celebrations together, but it didn’t feel like the experience was particularly our own. Now that we have a few holiday cycles behind us, we’re starting to identify which holiday traditions we particularly connect with and want to preserve for our family year after year.
1. A Big Clean
Yes! We actually enjoy pitching in to give our home a thorough scrub from top-to-bottom before Chinese New Year. The idea, of course, is to clear out the previous year’s bad luck and prepare to welcome good fortune in the year ahead. There’s something really satisfying about waking up the morning of New Year’s Day with a clean home, feeling like you have a fresh start in front of you.
2. A Big Meal
Many holiday dishes can be enjoyed during the year, but I think there’s something really special about having pots bubbling on every burner when cooking a family reunion meal on New Year’s Eve. It fills the house with good smells and conversation as everyone cooks and chats. We definitely each have our favorites — pork dumplings for my son, a white cut chicken (actually the ginger scallion dipping sauce!) for my wife and a whole steamed fish to make the entire table ooh and ahh.
3. A Red Envelope and a Pair of Tangerines
My son is young enough that he will still be surrounded by magic for at least a few more years with special visits from Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. For Chinese New Year, I like to leave a pair of tangerines and a red envelope stuffed with a gold chocolate coin (though perhaps money this year!) next to his pillow when he goes to sleep on New Year’s Eve. I wonder whether knows it’s from us when he wakes up in the morning, but I like the idea of him knowing someone is hoping his dreams come true.
4. Hunting for Lions
We’ve made it in to the San Francisco Chinese New Year Parade each year, but our favorite street activity is following the troupes of lion dancers who perform outside Oakland businesses in the days after New Year’s day. The lion dancers perform to wish the businesses a year of good sales, while my son watches and holds his hands over his ears as the strings of firecrackers explode.
Naturally, I expect my family’s Chinese New Year celebration to continue evolving over time. For instance, we try to include a new recipe from a different region in China each year. However, while it’s fun to keep our celebration fresh, it feels good to know that we have certain traditions to call our own.
Perhaps you find yourself at a similar juncture, with holiday practices that borrow from family, friends, books or even a resource like my web site, Chinese American Family. What’s the best way to transition toward a celebration that feels uniquely your own?
As usual, my best advice is always to “start with what you love” and let your personal connection grow from there. Use your passion for food, cultural traditions or crafting to open a pathway to your family’s preferred way to welcome the New Year. There’s no single “right” way to do it, only your way.
Wishing you joy, health, happiness and prosperity in the Year of the Dog.
Wesley Radez is the founder of Chinese American Family, a web site dedicated to helping families celebrate Chinese culture in the United States. The site has more than 100 family activities, recipes and crafts to help parents share Chinese culture with their families during Chinese New Year, the Dragon Boat Festival, the Mid-Autumn Festival and throughout the year. He and his family live in Oakland, CA.