Your Guide to Chinese New Year

by Danny LeMar and Claudia Mak

Learn how to celebrate with Emerson’s neighbor — Chinatown.


While most people rang in the new year with a bottle of champagne and the ball drop on Jan. 1, there is another celebration that's happening later this month. Chinese New Year and Chinese New Year’s Eve are the most important holidays on the Chinese calendar. Instead of a bottle of bubbly and a midnight countdown, revelers opt to make merry with a feast of rich, mouthwatering dishes and a table full of family. Traditions and customs are integral parts of Chinese culture. However, around the New Year, traditions pack all that more of a punch. While some resolutions will have faded by the time Chinese New Year rolls around, try to join in on the traditions. You might just adopt some as your own.

Called hong bao in Mandarin, red envelopes filled with money are given to children or unmarried adults with no source of income. If you're single, working, and making money, you still have to give the younger ones hong bao money. (College students should be safe to still receive envelopes!) It was believed that the money in the red packets would suppress evil from the children and keep them healthy. The color red signifies good luck, fortune, and happiness in Chinese culture.

Many people celebrating the holiday decorate their homes with dragons before the New Year comes. Dragons symbolize prosperity, good luck, and good fortune. Dragons are also featured in parades during New Year celebrations. If you want to really experience something amazing, head to Chinatown for the Lion Dance Parade. The parade begins at the Chinatown Gate on Beach Street and then weaves its way from business to business.

Two people operate a lion costume and are accompanied by dancers and Kung Fu students as they go from door to door in the Chinese community to perform cai ching, literally meaning “plucking the greens.” Local businesses hang vegetables and fruit by their doorways to draw in the lion. In turn, the lion dances and offers the business owners good luck for the New Year. In addition to the lions, there are also people operating dragon puppets while performing dances for spectators. Make sure to arrive before 11 a.m. for a prime festivity-viewing spot. It is quite the show!

In the days leading up to the Chinese New Year, families completely clear their homes in order to get rid of the old and welcome the new. Every inch of the home is scrubbed and swept. The floor is swept toward the door, symbolic of sweeping away any misfortune. However, this is only before the New Year comes. If the floor is swept during the few days following the New Year, the new luck will be swept out of the house. Often, people get their hair cut before the New Year comes, but not after, in fear that the good luck will be chopped off. Additionally, people buy new clothes to wear. Another superstitious tradition is paying off all debts before the New Year comes (if possible). It is believed that financial troubles follow you all through the coming year.

The New Year's Eve dinner is the most important dinner of the year for Chinese families. Normally this is the family reunion dinner, especially for those with family members away from home. During New Year's Eve dinner, fish is typically served to signify prosperity. Long noodles are also served as a symbol of a long life. It is imperative that they are not cut into pieces, to preserve the symbolism of longevity. Chicken and fish are served whole as a token of happiness and prosperity. Dishes with duck symbolize fidelity, while eggs signify fertility. Tofu or bean curd, however, should be avoided because the white color symbolizes death and misfortune.

The table is set with photos of ancestors and family elders as a sign of respect and remembrance. Family members sometimes put out fruit and pour small glasses of alcohol for the elders to enjoy. Dishes made with oranges represent wealth and good fortune because they are a very symbolic fruit in China. Before the family sits down to eat, there is some time beforehand for the elder spirits to enjoy their dinner before the living dig in.

The Vice President of Asian Students for Intercultural Awareness (ASIA), Leeanne Dillmann ‘15, enjoys going over to her mother’s friends’ houses where she eats a lot of food, receives her red envelopes, and plays mahjong.

“One time we went to the local Chinese food restaurant and they closed the restaurant and cooked dinner for us,” Dillmann says. “Now we have family and friends over and the restaurant cooks our vegetables."

ASIA member Rainnie He ‘15 says, “My favorite tradition is during New Year's Eve, we go out for dinner. Afterwards, everyone returns to my grandma's house together.”

He’s favorite part of the Chinese New Year is the big dinners. “Every relative and extended family pays each other visits.”

Dillmann recommends joining ASIA for activities leading up to and during the New Year. “We go out to Dim Sum together and explore Chinatown,” she says. “It’s fascinating. My favorite part of the holiday is celebrating my Chinese heritage and my roots the best way with family, friends, and new friends. There's great food and good times!"

Chinese New Year can be celebrated by all! You can dance with lions in Chinatown, convince your family to give you red envelopes filled with cash, and stuff your face with noodles in order to achieve longevity. The celebration is rich with years of tradition and focuses on renewing yourself for the New Year. It is a symbolic and meaningful celebration that can help spark some important lifestyle changes. If you don’t end up reflecting on all the mistakes you made last year and how you can improve on them, at the very least you’ll have a spotless floor. Gong Hey Fat Choi from Your Mag!


How to Celebrate

Your Chinese New Year celebration isn’t complete without the proper traditions and preparations! Instead of wandering aimlessly around Chinatown, here is a list of the best places to find…

Red Envelopes—C-Mart, 50 Herald St. Boston, MA Pick up a few bags of candies while shopping! The red-wrapped ones are good luck.

Dragon Decorations—Ming’s Market, 1102 Washington St. Boston, MA Buy your kitchenware here too! They have a great selection of pots, pans, utensils, and dishes for you to prep and serve.

Fish and Long Noodles—Super 88 Market, 1 Brighton Ave. Allston, MA Even if you can’t find exactly what you’re looking to make, the food court makes this one a hotspot.