The deafening bang of thousands of exploding firecrackers. Magnificent flowing silk dragons dancing in the street. Opulent feasts of auspicious-sounding dishes and sweets. Red envelopes stuffed with cash doled out to bowing children.
China rings in the Lunar New Year in a big way. The festivities begin on the first full moon of the new year and last for 15 days. Chinese New Year, which falls on January 28 this year, is the single most important holiday in the country. It's a time for renewal, family gatherings, eating rich foods and paying respect to your ancestors and elders. Also, what you do and how you act during the period is crucial in determining how the rest of your year will go. So, eating the right foods, such as black moss seaweed, which is a homonym for exceeding in wealth, and dried bean curd, which is another homonym for fulfillment of wealth and happiness, is a must.
These customs are widely known by most mainstream Westerners, but in many parts of Asia, New Year celebrations take on a different and richly diverse flavor.
In Korea, the Lunar New Year celebration is barely a blip on the party radar while New Year is a month-long vacation and matchmaking fest among the Hmong. And in Thailand, New Year festivities include a splashy good time with a water sprinkling ritual. Also, because many countries interpret the lunar calendar differently or use the solar system, the dates of celebrations vary as well. The Indian holiday of Diwali falls in late October or early November, the Cambodians enter their Chaul Chnam Thmey in mid-April and modern Japan celebrates New Year, oddly enough, on January 1st.
Despite a number of differences, there's one common theme that takes center stage for all Asian New Year celebrations: family. No matter what the country, religion or race, New Year's Day is a time for family reunions, gatherings and reflection and reaffirming bonds.
Back to Index
The Lunar New Year falls on the first day of the first moon (lunar month), and is Feb. 7 this time around. In old Canton (Guangzhou) in Southern China (circa 1936), its celebration was a month-long affair.
Fifteen days before the New Year, every store holds the last official banquet of the year. The presiding boss may start by offering a chicken leg to an employee, who often would burst into tears, not of gratitude, but of self-pity. This is the notorious "heartless chicken" - a kiss of death, Chinese style - signaling dismissal.
A week before the New Year, male family members bid farewell to the Kitchen God, who makes a week-long annual report to the Jade Emperor in Heaven. Sweet, sticky food, especially the syrupy malt sugar, is offered to his image in the kitchen to please him, but also to glue his mouth shut. This way he would not be able to say anything bad to bring disaster on the household. The Northern Chinese are more forthright: They smear a dollop of malt sugar over his lips.
New Year goodies must be prepared in advance. The mother of the household steams huge puddings (go) that are two inches thick and more than a foot in diameter. White Radish Pudding - with julienned radishes, rice flour, air-cured pork, dried shrimp, scallions and white pepper - is starchy yet chewy with a subtle astringency. Purple Taro Pudding is substantial with taro in place of turnips. Translucent Water Chestnut Pudding is sweet and yielding yet with spots of crunchiness through crushed water chestnuts. New Year's Pudding (nin go; nian gao in Mandarin) is sticky with glutinous rice flour and brown with unrefined sugar. (The Cantonese are surprised to learn that Northern New Year's pudding can be snow-white in color, and can be either savory or sweet.)
The children of the house may even be allowed into the kitchen to watch mother making deep-fried food such as sesame-coated round dumplings called jin dui - some small and hollow, but some as large as a fist or even a grapefruit - filled with sugared puffed glutinous rice and crushed peanuts. Other fried favorites are Crunchy Smiling Faces, a sesame-coated, sweetened dough ball cracked on one side and odd-shaped knick-knacks, some made from tiny slivers of flavored, colored dough, some from sweet potato slices and some from jumbles of stuck-together shredded taro. Deep-fried crescents are favored because they look like Chinese gold ingots; mother makes gok jai ("little crescents" ) stuffed with chopped peanuts, sesame and sugar, and yau gok ("oil crescents"), with a skin of glutinous rice flour and sweet bean paste stuffing.
Everybody returns home for the New Year's Eve family feast, most noted for the seasonable use of air-dried pork, air-dried duck, Chinese sausage, Chinese duck-liver sausage, all together steamed with starchy arrowhead roots and cut into slices.
The sound of firecrackers is heard everywhere on New Year's Day. Auspicious messages on red paper are pasted at home, including a four-foot long couplet of good wishes in flowing calligraphy on the two sides of the front door. "New spring with great luck" and "spirited as the dragon and the horse" appear on the wall, and on the rice urn, "ever full." Above the center of the door a sign reading "bliss" is pasted upside down. New pictures of the Door Gods and the Kitchen God replaces the old ones. Proper homage is paid to departed ancestors, to welcome the return of the Kitchen God and to elders in the family. New Year's dinner in Canton is a vegetarian meal, featuring Lohan Jai, using 10 or more ingredients. Northerners consume steamed or pan-fried crescents filled with vegetable and meat.
The second day of the first lunar month is the formal "opening" day of the new year. Martial-art institutes perform lion dances in the street. Shops hang prizes in red envelopes bound together with green lettuce leaves high on the second floor, each above a huge string of large, red, live firecrackers. The lion dancers stand on each other's shoulders so that the lion can bite off the prize and spit out the lettuce to the throbbing beat of the drum.
Street peddlers sell clams (hin). Everybody says gung hee fat choy ("congratulations for striking it rich") or just gung hee ("congratulations") to each other, and children get lai see, pocket money in tiny red envelopes from married adults. Visitors are offered candied lotus seeds, candied lotus root slices, dried melon seeds in the shell, tangerines, knick-knacks and tea. The puddings are sliced and pan fried to add a light brown crust and served. Store owners give a feast to workers at the shop or in restaurants. Special dishes are presented, for their imaginative good-wish names as much as taste. Representative is Strike it Rich and Good Sales (Fat Choy Ho See, actually Hair Vegetable [Fat Choy] Braised with Dried Oysters [Ho See]), earthy and rich without being fattening, it goes well with rice and is just right for the cold winter outside. Opera houses offer popular favorites with happy endings, such as The Grand Investiture of the Premier of Six Countries.
The economy returns to normal when shops open again on the seventh day of the new year, called People's Day. But festivities continue until the 15th night, with the consumption of boiled brown-sugar stuffed sweet dumplings in ginger sugar water.
Like no other festival, the Lunar New Year celebrations reveal the psyche of the Chinese people, who long for, but do not really expect miracles. Virtually the only thing they could count on is their food, which is consumed in variety and quantity, shared with relatives and friends, even used as a weapon to ensure the silence of the Kitchen God.
The Kitchen God's sealed lips could utter no evil that could bring disaster to the household, nor could they extol good deeds to earn heavenly favors. But why take chances? Over the millennia the people have seen catastrophes befell innocents much more often than virtues rewarded. Another year of the status quo may be as hard as the last one, but would be equally survivable and is miracle enough. At least it should provide enough malt sugar for the next annual kitchen report.
Back to Index
Lunar New Year celebrations in Japan are as outdated as, well, the lunar calendar in Japan. The Land of the Rising Sun adopted the solar calendar system in the late 19th century, abandoning the lunar system that it had used for centuries.
So, for Japan, New Years Day, or gantan, comes on the same day it comes for most countries outside of Asia January 1. But the country's festivities are no less colorful and full of tradition as their eastern neighbors.
Buddhist temples ring their bells shortly before midnight on New Year's Eve. People count along with the 108 rings, which represents the hardships and sorrows of the past year. When the tolling is silenced, the New Year has begun.
And on that auspicious day, how you execute "firsts" is crucial, including the first visit to the Shinto shrines or Buddhist temples. Also, on the must-do list is a trip to the ocean to witness the hatsu hinode or "first sunrise," which is said to bring good health throughout the entire New Year.
The entire celebration starts during the last few days of December and through the first few days of January and lasts for five to six days. Most stores and offices close during this period, so stocking up is key.
Properly welcoming the New Year is extremely important to the Japanese. So much so that most people take a few days off before the holiday to make preparations, including meticulously cleaning the house. Dust mites don't have a chance this time of year.
However, as Japan continues to change, so do its customs. For example, the huge, traditional Osechi feast for the entire family that mothers spend days to prepare can now be found ready-to-serve in supermarkets. But one tradition hasn't shown any signs of fading: giving children otoshi-dama, a cash allowance that's called the "New Year treasure." Some customs are just too important to let fade.
Back to Index
A classic tale of good conquering evil is the basis for the Indian New Year, Diwali. The story goes like this: Prince Rama, the rightful heir to his father's throne, was banished to the forest for 14 years by his wicked stepmother. While there, Rama's wife was kidnapped by the evil King Ravan of a neighboring land. A battle ensued and Rama rescued his wife, defeated Ravan and returned to his kingdom to reclaim his throne.
In celebration of Rama's victory, people feasted and lit oil lamps in their homes. And that was the first Diwali, which is short for Deepawali or "row of lights" in Sanskrit. Today, the festival, which falls in late October or early November, is celebrated according to regional customs.
Most mark the day by worshipping Lakhmi, the Hindu goddess of prosperity and Ganesh, the god of wisdom and good fortune; visiting loved ones and exchanging homemade traditional sweets. Also, following a half-hour prayer service, or puja after sunset, children light the diyas (the oil lamps) that have been placed around the house on each windowsill and on flat rooftops. Others may worship the goddess Kali instead of Lakhmi, set off fireworks and pass out small amounts of cash to everyone present at the celebration.
But despite some minor differences in celebration, Diwali is observed nationally, the most widely celebrated festival on the Hindu calendar and an affair that reaffirms the bonds of family and close friends.
Back to Index
Caught between two calendars and consequently two New Years Koreans tend to celebrate the lunar New Year, or Sol, with a whole less pomp than other Asian groups. No firecrackers, ornate dragon heads or beauty pageants. Just nice quiet reflective family time, ancestor worship and lots of rich food naturally.
A feast of juicy dumplings, steaming soups, sticky rice, noodles and sweet fruits is set out during family gatherings. The same type of spread is laid out before alters honoring relatives that have passed onto the spirit world. In addition to the food, Sol is observed by some Koreans by getting decked out in traditional dress, passing out envelopes of money to youngsters who do the obligatory bowing to elders and even taking the day off from work.
Back to Index
Unlike the Chinese with their extravagant, traffic-jamming New Year's celebrations or the Vietnamese with their county fair-like Tet festivals, Koreans in the United States take a quieter approach to the holiday.
For one thing, although the traditional Lunar New Year might be the more widely observed of the two, Koreans here (and in Korea) often choose to celebrate either or both solar and lunar beginnings. Like most agrarian cultures, Koreans followed the lunar cycle exclusively until around the late-19th and early-20th century. That's when Christian missionaries started bringing Western practices to Korea. And then the Japanese, which had already adopted the solar calendar in 1868, colonized the country. In South Korea today, both days are officially observed.
The ways in which Koreans celebrate differ, ranging from a simple gathering of the immediate family to a full-blown affair with numerous cousins and people dressed in old-fashioned Korean garb.
Still, there are a few customs that most families practice to some degree.
One such custom is jae sa, in which family members bow and pay their respects to the dearly departed. Surrounding the pictures on the table are lit incense sticks and carefully arranged dishes of meat, bowls of sticky rice, platters stacked high with persimmons and Asian pears, slinky clear potato noodles called japchae, and colorful confections made of rice.
Korean children also receive envelopes of "good luck" money, but they have to work for their loot with a series of bows to the elders.
Traditional must-eat foods on this day are dduk gook and/or mandu gook. Dduk gook is a soup swimming with glutinous rice cakes sliced into ovals. Mandu gook is simply dduk gook with small steamed dumplings (think potstickers without the frying and you get the picture).
Whatever the practices may be, Koreans and Korean Americans, like everyone else in the world, use this day to spend time with loved ones, reflect upon the past year, make those resolutions, and of course, eat a lot of food.
Back to Index
The Vietnamese ring in Tet Nguyen Dan with plenty of food, fun and more importantly, a positive attitude or else. The belief is that the way you act and the things you do during those crucial first three days of the new lunar period will set the tone for the rest of the year. So, it's no wonder celebrants avoid arguments, put on smiling faces and give generous gifts of ripe fruits, delicate rice cakes and of course, red envelopes stuffed with cash.
But even before people can even begin to think about sinking their teeth in some Tet cheer, they must clean their homes from top to bottom, pay off old debts and buy or make a new set of clothes. It's all about getting a fresh new start and kicking off a new beginning in a positive way.
Back to Index
Just imagine if Christmas, New Year's Day, Thanksgiving and your birthday were all rolled into one glorious holiday that lasted for three fun-filled days.
Decked out in new clothes bought specially for the occasion, you'd spend the time leisurely collecting "good luck" money, visiting friends and family, setting off a few firecrackers and eating lots of yummy food. And best of all, nobody could get mad or in any other way act unpleasant because it would be the first day of the new lunar calendar and grumpy feelings on these auspicious days would mean a slew of Monday mornings for the rest of the year.
This is what Tet (new year) celebrations are like for Vietnamese around the world. Observed for more than 4,000 years, it's a time to give thanks, ask for blessings to come, to put the past behind and to get ready to start anew.
Greeting cards and gifts of dried fruits or gourmet teas are exchanged to wish one another happiness, longevity and prosperity. People pay homage to their ancestors, often at home altars decorated with smoky sandalwood and narcissus incense sticks, fruit, flowers and special foods like green rice cakes.
Based on the lunar calendar, where a full moon signifies a new month, the Year of the Ox starts on Feb. 7. Although names for some of the zodiac animals might differ, the Vietnamese cycle repeats itself every 12 years just like the Chinese zodiac.
In preparation for The Big Day, families often scrub the house spotless (all right, so maybe this part isn't so hot, but killing a few dust bunnies is such a small price to pay for all that cheer and goodwill) and decorate it with sprigs of plum blossom. Planning to sweep the old hearth? Make sure to swish using inward strokes because the outward ones are thought to make the household less prosperous in the coming year. You wouldn’t want that to happen.
There are other ways to stack the deck so as to guarantee a lucky year. For example, lore has it that the first visitor to the house on the first day of Tet is particularly important. As a result, some families take painstaking care to ensure that said visitor is rich, happy, prestigious and probably male. It's also rumored that the person answering the door should be blessed with good fortune so as not to invite bad tidings into the home.
Seven days before Tet, the Kitchen God supposedly travels to the Jade Emperor in heaven to report on the family's deportment during the past year. Unlike Santa Claus, who only gets one shot on Christmas, the Emperor can either send gifts or lumps of coal for the entire coming year. Is it any wonder then that some families, to fudge fate and make sure the Kitchen God says only the sweetest things, dab honey on the lips of the statue of the god that they keep in their homes?
Speaking of food, popular Tet dishes include banh chung, a square shaped, sweet rice cake stuffed with mung beans and pork. It's usually eaten with dua mon, a concoction of pickled radishes, peppers and other vegetables. Favored snacks are dried watermelon seeds and candied ginger, coconut and pineapple.
Most cities in the United States with large Vietnamese populations usually have a festival or two scheduled to help celebrate with contests, parades, traditional music, food and costumes, and carnival rides for the kiddies.
Back to Index
New Years in Cambodia is more than an excuse to party. It's a deeply spiritual experience. During the three days of chaul chnam thmey, or the New Year celebration, people flock to the temple each day. There, they split their time between praying, playing and eating.
But the first day, which usually falls in mid-April, starts at home in front of the family altar. The area is prepared to receive the new angel of the New Year with candles, incense, flowers, fruit, rolled up banana leaves called bay sey and a bowlful of perfumed water. Family members pray for health, happiness and a fruitful farming season. Then later on in the morning, decked out in their new clothes and bearing rice and food for the monks, people head out to temple.
After the sermon, parishioners gather on temple grounds to play traditional games, including old favorites like a jhun, scarf tossing and teanh proat, a variation on tug-of-war. Then when the sun goes down in the evening, the community collectively builds a "mountain" made of sand in the temple. And the higher the better because Cambodians believe that they will have as much happiness and health as there are grains of sand on the mountain.
The second day is also spent at the temple with more praying and adding onto the mountain. But this is also the day children show their respect to elders by presenting them with gifts ranging from clothes to baked goods to money.
And on the third and final day, the monks bless the mountain and people wash their Buddha statues with perfumed water. The task is viewed as a good deed and would surely bring good luck, happiness and long life to those who participate. After Buddha's image is well cleansed, people wash themselves, elders, monks and teachers with the same fragrant liquid literally putting a fresh face on the New Year.
Back to Index
The month-long Xyoo Tshiab celebrated by many Hmong tribes is more than a festival. It's part vacation from the year-long task of tending farms, part game-playing and food fest and part matchmaking affair.
Unmarried young women dress in elaborate outfits decorated with jewels, fancy hats and purses to play a game of "toss ball" with single men looking for wives. During the rounds of pov pob, participants sing courting songs and check each other out. Obviously, marriages are extremely popular during this time of year.
But Xyoo Tshiab is not all about making love connections. The first three days of the New Year s celebration is spent eating, chatting with friends and relatives, visiting loved ones and eating some more. Also, according to tradition, the heads of the village would cut down a tree and drag it to the middle of the village to build a "doorway" to the New Year.
While each of the villagers take their turn passing through the doorway, elderly men wave live chickens over their heads to bring them luck. And when the tree dries out, it is thrown away and the New Year celebrations are over. Then it's back to work in the fields until the next Xyoo Tshiab.
Back to Index
Water and string are crucial to welcoming the Thai New Year, Songkran. During the four days of festivities, which fall in mid-April, people sprinkle and douse each other with perfumed water to symbolize cleansing and renewal. In public displays of Rod Nahm Dum Hua, the water splashing gets a little wild, but in the home, the ceremony takes on a gentler and more sincere feeling.
Traditionally, the younger household members carefully pour the jasmine petal scented water over the shoulder and down the back or on the hands of older relatives while uttering blessings and good wishes for the good year. In return, the elders ask for forgiveness for any harsh words they may have used in the past year and offer a blessing and words of wisdom to the youngsters.
After the last drop of water from silver bowls is tossed and kind words are exchanged, it's time for the string tying ritual. It involves the tying of string around someone else's wrist while reciting a short blessing prayer. It is an honor to receive the strings and they are left on until they falls off by themselves.
Of course Songkran also includes the standard motions of cleaning your house, washing Buddha statues with perfumed water, visiting temples bearing gifts of preserved foods, prepared dishes, fresh fruit and new robes for the monks. These important activities are a must and are labeled "merit-making" for a reason.
Back to Index
The majority rules in many places and Singapore is no exception when it comes to public holidays. With more than 50 percent of its population Chinese, it's no surprise that the lunar New Year is a big to-do.
Officially the holiday lasts for three days, but Singaporeans often take the entire week off from work to celebrate, visiting relatives and friends.
The markets bustle before the big day with shoppers picking out that new outfit as well as new household cleaning supplies. Everything has to be just right to set the stage for an auspicious New Year .
A Chinese New Year's Eve feast doubles as a family reunion, bringing people from all corners of the world back home. As in China, meals are decadent with a spread of symbolically lucky foods and hong bao, or red envelopes stuffed with money, are passed out to the younger folk. Recipients are expected to show self-restraint and safely stow the valuable packages under their pillows until the 15th day of the New Year. This is to ensure good luck for the coming year. So, it should be worth the wait.
Back to Index