By Susan Wang
Firecrackers, red pockets and dumplings galore — Chinese New Year is a holiday accompanied by myriad traditions, which stem from the same roots as those accompanying Japanese and Korean New Year’s celebrations.
Japanese New Year is celebrated on Jan. 1 of the Gregorian calendar, while both Chinese and Korean New Year are celebrated on the first day of the lunar calendar, which was Jan. 23 this year. Chinese New Year includes 15 days of festivities, ending with the Lantern Festival on the 15th day, while Korean New Year lasts only three days.
Chinese New Year is celebrated in China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. The holiday has been observed since the Han dynasty as a festival to fight a mythical beast called “Nian,” the Chinese word for “year,” that attacked children and ate farmers’ livestock and crops.
In China and Taiwan, New Year’s Eve is filled with the sounds of exploding firecrackers, as they are used by farmers to ward off evil spirits. Firecrackers designed for the New Year are shaped like small cylindrical hard candies and emblazoned with gold symbols for luck and fortune. Though firecrackers are heard into the early hours of New Year’s Day in Asia, a city-wide ban prohibits their use in Los Angeles.
“I really wish we could do firecrackers here,” said Vivien Mao ’12, who celebrates Chinese New Year every year with her family.
Each year is represented by a different animal of the traditional 12-animal zodiac. This is the year of the dragon.
Chinese New Year’s Eve, called “Chuxi,” is the main night of events. Families hang an upside down Chinese character for “fortune” outside their door, which is meant to bring fortune and luck. Scrolls with couplets about blessings and health are posted on interior walls. Families then feast on a large dinner of dumplings, stewed pork, chicken soup, spring rolls, shrimp, bamboo shoots, “Eight Treasure Rice” and, most importantly, fish.
“We always leave some of the fish on the plate because it’s supposed to bring fortune in the New Year,” Mao said. “The Chinese word for ‘fish’ sounds the same as ‘surplus,’ so it’s like leaving surplus fortune for the next year.”
Taylor Yang ’12 also observes some Chinese New Year traditions with her family.
“My favorite part [of Chinese New Year] is dinner, because there’s always so much amazing food,” Yang said. “My mom cooks and invites the entire extended family over. I usually end up overeating, but it’s worth it.”
For Korean New Year, families and relatives gather for a big dinner on the first day of the New Year rather than on New Year’s Eve.
Eusene Lee’s ’12 family doesn’t usually visit other relatives but always has a big dinner on Korean New Year’s Day.
“I love my mom and grandma’s ‘dduk gook,’” he said. “It’s a soup with sliced oval rice cakes, and all Korean families eat it during New Year.”
Michelle Chang ’13 and her family also eat rice cake soup.
“It’s Korean tradition to eat ‘dduk gook’ on New Year’s Day, so my grandmother always makes it,” she said.
Japanese people also have their own special foods they eat during the New Year celebration. On Japanese New Year’s Eve, called “Omisoka,” families eat a dinner of noodles, sushi, stewed vegetables, pickled side dishes, shrimp, “oden” (fishcakes simmered in a bonito-based broth) and mochi for dessert.
“On the night before New Year’s Day, my family would pound mochi from rice when I was young,” said Upper School math teacher Michael Mori.
It is considered taboo to cook on New Year’s Day, so many Japanese will make enough food during “Omisoka” to eat the next day.
Upper School photography teacher and archivist Allan Sasaki is a third-generation Japanese-American who celebrates the New Year with his family at relatives’ houses.
“One thing the Japanese do anywhere in the world is to celebrate New Year with a lot of food,” Sasaki said.
A custom that all three cultures share during New Year’s is the giving of money by adults to their children. Chinese people have “red pockets,” which are small decorative red envelopes enclosed with money.
Korean children also bow and wish New Year’s blessings and good health to their elders because, like most Asian countries, Korea is a Confucian society with a hierarchy based on age. After all the New Year wishes are complete, parents give children money in small envelopes, similar to Chinese “red pockets.”
Lee said receiving money is always his favorite of New Year’s festivities.
Another more apparent tradition of Korean New Year is the “hanbok,” a colorful dress worn by girls that flares out under the chest.
In Japan, men and women dress in “kimono,” traditional Japanese clothing, during “Omisoka” to visit Shinto shrines and pray for blessings in the New Year. At Buddhist temples in Japan, people ring a large bell at midnight of “Omisoka” 108 times to erase the 108 human sins in Buddhist belief. Many Japanese citizens watch this ritual on TV, as well as another music show called Kohaku.
“In Japan they have very elaborate celebrations with many ceremonial activities,” Sasaki said.