“Gung hay fat choy!”
Chances are that you heard this (or “Gong xi fa cai,” its Mandarin equivalent) a lot last Friday if you happened to be walking through a predominantly Chinese neighborhood like Flushing, Queens. It literally means “Congratulations and good luck!” but traditionally it’s been used while greeting others in celebration during the Lunar New Year. Stony Brook’s Graduate Student Organization hosted a party in the Student Activities Center to commemorate the occasion, while East Side Dining had a special menu for the same reason.
But if most countries around the world have already celebrated the New Year back in January, what’s the point of doing it twice?
The Lunar New Year is a collective term referring to all of the New Year’s celebrations that coincide with the traditional Chinese lunisolar calendar. It is celebrated throughout Asia, particularly in countries like Japan, Korea and China.
Like western New Year’s celebrations, the Lunar New Year is both a time of reflection of the past year as well as a time of preparation for the future.
Although I can only speak from the Chinese perspective, it’s handled dramatically differently from its western counterparts.
Traditionally, New Year’s celebrations begin with a lot of physical labor. The day before New Year’s is spent cleaning every nook and cranny of the house to chase away evil spirits, bad luck and ill omens that love to linger in unkempt households while, in turn, inviting in good spirits and fortune. This could take hours, even in the most orderly of households. For reference, my family worked from 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. this year to leave our home spotless, only taking breaks for meals.
My mother loves to leave mandarin oranges on tables and dressers around the house. These symbolize wealth and prosperity due to how similar the word for mandarin sounds to the word for gold or riches. She loves them so much that she once refused to take them off my bedroom dresser, instead allowing it to decompose and melt into the wood, something I have never let her live down. Eating meat is also forbidden at this time, since it angers the Buddhist gods that venerate all life.
Things get truly exciting the day of New Year’s. Parents give their children red and gold envelopes filled with money — usually between $20 and $50 — called lai see or hong bao, depending on whether you speak Cantonese or Mandarin Chinese, respectively. This is to wish them good luck and ward off more evil spirits (though the little bit of extra pocket change never hurts). Parents aren’t the only ones doing this; anyone of a higher social standing can give an envelope to someone close to them lower in social standing. It’s not uncommon to see married couples giving envelopes to their younger, single friends and family or bosses giving envelopes to their employees.
Everyone eats a special assortment of candy and snacks in the morning and at the end of the day. These candies each represent a different value important to Chinese families, like pistachios as a pun for cracking smiles (and thus promoting happiness) or coconut candies for strong family relations — another pun based on how the Cantonese word for coconut sounds similar to the words for grandfather and son. As the world becomes more globalized, some families have added their own favorite candies to the mix. Chocolates wrapped in gold foil like Ferrero Rocher have become a favorite among chocoholics.
In town, people ignite firecrackers to scare away more evil spirits as buildings are lined in more red and gold decorations to symbolize fortune and joy. If you know where to look, you can also see the famous lion dance march down the street. This ancient tradition dates back to the Tang dynasty and is performed annually to — you guessed it — scare away evil spirits with kung-fu based routines that performers spend all year practicing.
Back at home, families meet for their annual New Year’s dinner. Everyone wishes each other well with a hearty, “Gung hay fat choy sun tai geen hong!” (I wish you good luck and great health!) In some households, this is the only time they see or hear from each other, which makes it an even more momentous occasion. Expect mounds of green vegetables, crispy fried pork dripping with sweet red sauce and sizzling hot pans full of stew, among other delectable dishes. Stories are swapped, laughs are had and prayers are made for the ones who couldn’t make it to the table this year.
The Lunar New Year is a prized tradition in Chinese culture and many others, reaffirming the importance of family and their most treasured values. It’s a time-consuming task as much as it is a celebration of everything that has happened and will happen. If any of this has gotten you interested, then take a trip to Flushing or Chinatown on Feb. 5 next year. You might find something for your own family to celebrate.