Red envelopes, firecrackers and astrology: Chinese New Year traditions

This year, Chinese New Year will open up the Year of the Dragon. Well-known Chinese New Year’s traditions include firecrackers, cash-filled red envelopes, and wearing the colour red.

Why do Chinatown store owners place cabbage or lettuce at the top of their doorways during Chinese New Year festivals? And what does the Year of the Dragon actually mean? 

Here's a brief explainer of the different Chinese New Year traditions:

Red envelopes

Cash-filled red envelopes or lai see are given by married couples and elders to children and the unmarried. The cash is always given in bills (preferably very clean, very crisp bills) and the amount of money is always in even numbers, since even numbers are considered more auspicious. In my family, the giving of red envelopes usually takes place at the dinner table; this is also traditionally the time when my grandmother loudly reminds everyone at the table of my unmarried status. Others might visit their extended relatives to exchange good wishes and receive more red envelopes.

Firecrackers

Traditionally, firecrackers were set off in family homes to ward off evil spirits. You won’t find too many firecrackers being set off inside family homes here in Vancouver, but more so in Chinese New Year celebrations in Chinatown. Firecrackers, rolled up in red paper, are hung by a string and lit on fire from the top.

Cabbage-eating lion dancers

During Chinese New Year festivals in many Chinatowns across Canada, lioin dance performers will dress up in a lion costume and perform cai qing, which literally means “plucking the greens.” Chinatown shopkeepers and restaurant owners attach a head of lettuce plus lai see to the top of their doorways. Accompanied by firecrackers and drumming, the lion travels from store to store, consuming the greens and lai see. The lion then “spits” out the greens in front of the store (but keeping the red envelope), which symbolizes good fortune and blessing on the business.

The Year of the Dragon

Of the 12 Chinese zodiac animals, the dragon always seemed like the most enviable sign to be born under, at least compared to the rat or the chicken. Many Chinese couples seem to agree. According to Chinese astrology, a “dragon baby” is good luck for the entire family, and baby booms are expected to happen in 2012 in China, Taiwan, and countries with large Chinese populations. The Year of the Dragon is also associated with change, high energy, and good times ahead. Many around the world are hoping for better things for their family and their economy after the past few years of turbulence.

 

I’m a little removed from old-school Chinese New Year traditions. I still take a bath on New Year’s Day even though tradition says that taking a bath or washing your hair is washing away luck.

But I enjoy the family gatherings and I appreciate my grandmother carefully placing lai see and oranges on each bed (representing long life and good fortune for the household). Much like Western New Year, Chinese New Year is a time to spend time with family, wish your friends and family good fortune, and hope for a better future.

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