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11 Traditions That Are Important During Chinese New Year

How Hong Kongers are welcoming the Year of the Ox.
11 Traditions That Are Important During Chinese New Year

If 2021 isn't going your way yet, for some, there's another shot at a new beginning right around the corner. Across the globe, millions of people are getting ready to honour Lunar New Year.* Intended to wipe the past 12 months clean, this celebration is basically a chance to drive away negative vibes and start fresh. 

Marked by the arrival of spring and filled with enormous feasts, family gatherings, symbolic traditions, and plenty of fireworks, Lunar New Year (also called Spring Festival, Chinese New Year and Vietnamese Tet) is one of the largest and most important annual Asian observances in the world — and the celebrations in Canada are no different.

On February 12, Canadians celebrating Lunar New Year will say goodbye to 2020's tumultuous Year of the Rat and welcome the Year of the Ox, which symbolizes strength and positivity, something we could all use a bit of right now. 

For Hong Kongers, celebrations typically involve lion dances in Chinatowns across Canada, parades like the International Chinese New Year Night Parade in Hong Kong, and lots of hustling about in preparation. But since things are a little different this year, let’s be more creative with the celebrations!

Hong Kong Tourism Board

Lunar New Year is all about ushering in good fortune, luck and prosperity, and while celebrations vary from culture to culture, one thing connects them all: spending time with loved ones.

The good news is, despite social distancing rules and lockdowns in effect across the country, Canadians eager to join the Lunar New Year festivities can still safely celebrate in their own way at home.

Whether you choose to share blessings with loved ones from a distance, host your reunion dinner over Zoom or take part in Hong Kong's massive Chinese New Year celebration virtually on the Hong Kong Tourism Board's website, you can still toast to new beginnings and an auspicious new year.

But before we kick off the festivities, there are a lot of Lunar New Year traditions to get the hang of first. From the importance of wearing red to why you shouldn't cut your hair, these Chinese customs observed by Hong Kongers are loaded with symbolic meaning and will help you usher in the Year of the Ox the right way, and with plenty of luck.

Bring On The Red Envelopes

Red envelopes filled with lucky money, also called "lai see" in Cantonese, are one of the most popular gifts during Chinese New Year celebrations. Traditionally, lai see are given from old to young and senior to junior; grandparents to children, bosses to staff, married couples to single, younger friends.

Giving lucky money (even amounts only!) in red envelopes is meant to bestow good luck and prosperity on the recipient. The amount you put in the envelope is up to you, just remember to use a single crisp banknote, never coins.

Brighten Up Your Home With Some Colour

We could all do with a little more good fortune in 2021. Choose red lanterns to drive off bad luck, red and gold couplets for good wishes, paper cuttings for luck and happiness, and budding plants like peonies, orchids, and peach blossoms for a prosperous new year.

"I always go overboard with decorations because they are just so beautiful," Claire Yates, founder of The Lion Rock Press in Hong Kong says. "My favourite is a huge vase of silky pussy willow and golden yellow forsythia. We also have a lovely orange tree on our doorstep. Orange and kumquat trees are said to bring wealth and prosperity."

You can usually find festive trinkets in Hong Kong's many street markets, like Tai Yuen Street Market in Wan Chai, but Canadians can order items online or DIY simple decorations like upside-down "fortune" character.

Decorating usually starts about a week before the festivities, so get started if you haven't already!

Stock Up On Mandarins & Kumquats For Good Luck

Symbolizing abundance and happiness, Mandarin trees are a huge tradition during Chinese New Year in Hong Kong and are usually placed in pairs, one on each side of a house or building's main door.

If you happen to live in an apartment where a six- to ten-foot tree isn't practical, a small kumquat tree (which sounds like the Cantonese words for "gold" and "good luck") will do the trick. Standing just a few feet tall, kumquat trees are small enough to make good gifts and are often presented to friends during Chinese New Year celebrations.

Splurge On New Threads, But Not New Shoes

In Cantonese, the word shoes is pronounced "hai" which sounds like the word for "rough," so buying shoes suggests you'll have a rough and unlucky year — something you definitely don't want to attract!

But don't let that get you down. You can still start the Year of the Ox off right by buying a whole new set of clothing (minus shoes, of course) all the way down to underwear, which you should buy in red for maximum luck, especially if it's your zodiac year.

"One thing that I started doing since coming to Hong Kong is to buy a new top and underwear for the first day of the Chinese New Year, both preferably in red," says Virginia Chan, founder of Humid with a Chance of Fishballs Tours.

Deep-Cleaning The House Is Key

Traditionally done to sweep away the bad luck (ahem, 2020), deep-cleaning your home (physically and energetically) makes room for good energy and fresh beginnings by cleaning out the old before ringing in the new. The same goes for getting rid of items you no longer use.

"Just make sure to get it all done before the first day of the holidays as cleaning during the actual new year is said to bring bad luck," explains Coco Chan, a Soul Coach and Akashic Guide and Mentor. "This sets the stage for us to welcome in any new year energies with abundance and clarity."

Manicures & Haircuts Are A No-Go

Thinking of getting dolled up for the celebrations? Get your hair and nails done ahead of time, it's bad luck to do it during the Chinese New Year Celebrations. Anything that involves cutting — including getting your hair trimmed or your nails clipped — should be avoided during the Chinese New Year holiday period, or you risk cutting your fortune away.

Your Delicious Feast Should Also Be Super Symbolic

Dishes served during Chinese New Year are carefully chosen because their names or shapes carry special meaning. For example, whole steamed fish symbolizes prosperity, dumplings and spring rolls mean wealth, noodles represent longevity, tang yuan or glutinous rice balls signify family, and poon choi (a one-pot casserole dish meant for sharing) embodies togetherness.

Wong Wing Keung, an executive Chinese chef at Hong Kong's Mandarin Oriental Hotel, says a classic "lucky" Chinese New Year recipe to make on the first day of the holidays is egg noodles with crabmeat and crab roes because it symbolizes auspiciousness.

"Another favourite festive dish of mine is braised vegetables with red fermented bean curd. This stems from a Buddhist tradition which believes that vegetables purify and cleanse the body and soul," he explains.

Give Your Ancestors Some Love

Worshippers typically visit temples during the first three days of Chinese New Year to light incense, pray for blessings and wish for good luck and wealth in the year ahead.

Hong Kong's Wong Tai Sin Temple is the city's largest and most popular temple, but while current rules advise us to stay home, you can try creating an at-home altar instead. Keep it tidy and pay respect to your ancestors. If you're lucky, they may bring you good fortune.

Dress In Red For Luck

In Chinese culture, red symbolizes success, happiness, good fortune and joy — things we could all use a little more of in 2021. According to legend, the importance of this colour started with an ancient beast called Nian, who would terrorize villages by feeding on their livestock, crops and sometimes even their children on the eve of Chinese New Year.

It was said the Nian was afraid of loud noises, fire and the colour red. Since then, red has been used in decorations, food, and, of course, clothing to ward off the creature at CNY.

So go on, put on your luckiest red outfit, but definitely avoid wearing white and black. The colours are traditionally associated with mourning and funerals.

Share The Wealth & Pay Off Your Debts 

It's said that if you start your year in debt, you'll likely finish the year in the same way, so be sure to pay off your credit cards and pay back your friends before the first day of Lunar New Year.

And remember not to borrow or lend any money during celebrations (it's frowned upon). Nothing says "new beginnings" like a clean bank account.

Rice Cake Is A Huge Tradition

Like any other good holiday, Chinese New Year is celebrated with lots (and lots) of eating — and sweets are no exception.

Nin gou (aka glutinous rice cake or Chinese New Year pudding) is a delicious chewy traditional rice cake sweetened with brown sugar and dates. This beloved treat is served to bring new job opportunities, good grades and to help with reaching new heights, which sounds pretty good to us!

However you plan to ring in the Year of the Ox, take a cue from Hong Kongers and follow these customs and traditions to stay lucky over the Lunar New Year. Who knows? You may just attract enough good fortune to be able to celebrate 2022's Year of the Tiger in person in Hong Kong.

Until then, you can live out your very best Lunar New Year life by taking part in one of the city's biggest celebrations virtually on Hong Kong Tourism Board's website.

In place of the usual firework shows, dragon dances, and crowded parades, Hong Kong Tourism Board will be providing free online activities, festive e-cards, holiday offers and fortune web games so you can still say goodbye to the old and hello to the new from home in style.

To learn more about Lunar New Year and how you can celebrate virtually, check out Hong Kong Tourism Board's website or follow them on Facebook,  Instagram, Twitter or YouTube.

*This article has been updated.

Narcity may receive a small commission if you purchase something we recommend in this article, which was created by the Narcity Shop team. Items are in stock and prices are confirmed at the time of publishing, but they can change at any time.

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