As I prepare for the upcoming Chinese New Year, my thoughts often go back to my favorite childhood memories of our family celebrations.
The best part of Chinese New Year was being allowed to stay home from school. My sisters, brother and I would dress in new clothes, eat the special pastries my Mom made and wait for our relatives to arrive. Then, while the adults sat and talked, my cousins and I would have the entire day to play. And before my Aunts and Uncles left, we would all be given hongbao (red envelopes) containing "lucky money" for the new year.
When my family lived in the Lower East Side in the early '70s, our school held a dance program each year celebrating Chinese New Year. We were taught a number of traditional Chinese dances, but unfortunately, I just remember some of the music and only bits and pieces of the dances. However, I do remember the floor length dresses we wore. I still remember how the full skirts would billow out whenever I sank down to my knees as part of the dance.
On a few occasions, my father would take us to Chinatown to see the lion dancers. These outings did not always go as planned as I remember being terrified of the lions and the firecrackers. The smell of gunpowder from the firecrackers and the red firecracker casings covering the street is still a vivid memory. And the distinctive drumbeat for the lion dance is hard to forget. My Chinatown: a Year in Poems by Kam Mak has the perfect illustration of the streets carpeted in red.
I remember my mother cooking and shopping for the New Year. She would search for the perfect oranges, tangerines and kumquats that will be given away to our relatives and also used as the centerpiece for the table. They had to be bright orange with no blemishes and some still had to have their stems and leaves. She would bring out the "tun hop," the traditional 6 sectioned candy dish which we would fill with sweets, including: chocolate coins, candied water chestnuts, candied lotus root and sweetened coconut strips. And she would cook — the special pastries that we would have only at New Year. She would make fried sesame balls filled with a sugar and peanut mix, fried dumplings with a savory meat filling and "fot gou" (what my nieces and nephew call "white muffins") a chewy dense cupcake made from glutinous rice flour. This was in addition to the fish, chicken, pork, noodle and vegetable dishes she made for our New Year's eve dinner.
This last part of my childhood Chinese New Year traditions still takes place. My mother still makes all of the traditional dishes for New Year and my nieces and nephew enjoy all of her pastries and Chinese cooking. My sister and I have taken them to Chinatown to see the lion dances and parades. And yes, my youngest niece is scared of the drums and noisemakers, so that part of our history is still going strong.
We've also shared some books and stories with them about Chinese New Year. You can too — try some of the titles on this booklist in BiblioCommons. Some are specifically about the celebration while others are folktales and stories from China. For a more academic look at Chinese New Year and the Year of the Snake, my colleague Raymond Pun wrote a blog post called 2013: The Year of the Snake.
I should get back to cleaning, so...
gongxi fa cai (Mandarin) or gong hay fat choy (Cantonese) or gong he fot toy (Toyshanese)
In any and all dialects — wishing you all a happy and prosperous new year!