A celebration of renewal and honouring the past.
Lunar New Year, also known as The Spring Festival or Chinese New Year, holds special significance for over a billion people around the world. With its emphasis on family, tradition, and wishing good fortune for others, it also has a way of bringing people together in the best of ways. Jenn discovered this herself at the height of the pandemic, when she hoped to discover more about the festival as a way of reconnecting with her heritage. Reaching out for guidance, she was overwhelmed by the generosity and insight she received from others in her community (her kids even received a few unexpected lucky envelopes!)
Aligned with the Chinese lunar calendar, Lunar New Year will fall on February 1st, 2022, and this will mark the beginning of the zodiac’s Year of the Tiger and the start of spring. Traditionally, the festival lasts up to 16 days and is a treasured time to honour deities and ancestors alongside family.
The Significance of Lunar New Year
Lunar New Year has a rich history dating back around 3,500 years. From its inception, it was a much-needed period of rest and rejuvenation for workers. The focus on taking a pause from the hustle and bustle of daily life has continued to this day, with many celebrants taking extended vacations and coming together with loved ones for a feast on New Year's Eve. Displays of fireworks, dragon dances, and the preparatory cleaning of homes to “sweep away the dust” from the previous year are just a few traditions that have been passed down over centuries.
A common thread found throughout much of the mythos surrounding this time of year is the ancient story of the beast Nian, whose name means “(new) year.” It’s said that Nian usually kept to itself, but on New Year's Eve, it came to terrorize the local villagers. Some details of the story can vary, but amidst the chaos, an old man garbed in red made a noise, and the sound and colour terrified the beast so much that it fled! From then on, every year people dressed up in red and used drums and fireworks to ward off the beast.
In the video below, you can discover more about the story of this legendary figure and its connection to traditions we can still see today.
BCPS Chinese - Story of Nian. Credit: Matt Lovett
Lunar New Year has a spiritual emphasis on good fortune and luck, with the lucky colour red threaded throughout celebrations (it did scare off Nian, after all). Red envelopes (紅包, hóngbāo) with money inside are commonly gifted amongst loved ones, often from elders to younger generations. Some even choose to write well wishes directly on the envelope as a lucky keepsake. As our community member Rebecca shares, “popular well wishes include good health, happiness, safety, prosperity, for all their wishes to come true, etc. You can write more personal ones for each kid as well. When you give it to your kids, hold it with both hands and they receive it with both hands. As they receive, they should wish you nice things, like hope you stay young forever, or good health, happiness, etc.”
And Lunar New Year can’t be discussed without mentioning the delicious and often symbolic foods, like varieties of steamed fish, dumplings, spring rolls, and noodles. Rebecca shared some of the symbolism behind a few popular new year dishes. Much like “Nian,” the larger meaning is often based on what it sounds like:
Name / Sound
Shrimp - "haha"
Fish - "Yu"
Looks like money
Black moss/looks like hair - "fat"
Rice cakes (sweet ones) - "go"
Plate of candies
like a treasure box of goodies (chocolate coins)
To find out more about Lunar New Year traditions and some of its significant symbols, check out the beautifully animated video below.
The Story of Lunar New Year. Credit: Fortune Tales
Traditions In Our Communities
As our community stories show, Lunar New Year holds deep meaning and nostalgia for many, with family often found at the heart of it all.
For Maggie, Lunar New Year is about reconnecting with loved ones. Every year as she grew up, the festival brought her father home from his job abroad.
“It was the only time of the year where our family was whole. I absolutely cherished this time and the happiness I would see in my mother’s eye every time my father walked through the door was something that can’t be forgotten.
… After graduating university, moving out and becoming assimilated with the Canadian culture, I’ve found that I’ve lost my connection with my culture and what it means to me. However, since becoming a mom, the need to find my roots again has never been so great. The nostalgia and warm memory I had growing up around Lunar New Year is something I want to pass on to my boys. For our family, it would mean (in a post-COVID world) going out for dim sum with family and cousins to retell stories of when we were young, visit our elderly family members and take them to watch the lion dances. Until then, we will continue our tradition of preparing our home for the new year by cleaning and decorating the house with paper cuttings on our doors, and ending the new year day with some delicious homemade tangyuan.”
Rebecca shared some treasured annual traditions observed by her family, which includes some friendly competition.
“My uncle would fly to Toronto from HK and host a CNY dinner with all of my mom's side of the family every year. He would always order from Lai Wah Heen and the meal would be delicious and gluttonous, but what really stood out as a tradition was playing Pai Gaw 牌九 after dinner.
The game itself honestly is not exhilarating — after 35+ years of playing it once a year, I still don't really know the rules/how to play. My uncle uses it as a way to give away money in addition to Lai See. Each person gets money to start off with, and my uncle is the House. We form teams by family and place "bets" each round. Since the intention is to give away money, the House is very loose on the rules :) You either get money or don't, but he'll never take money. It's fun watching my mom and her siblings argue for more money from my uncle especially when they've clearly lost, and everyone goes home with a ziplock bag filled with loonies and toonies.
…we haven't done this for almost 2 years. We can still do Zoom dinners, but the Pai Gow experience unfortunately just can't be done virtually. We definitely miss it!"
Isaac has especially fond childhood memories of his grandparents and sweet recollections of Lunar New Year candies.
"Our family would always go to my paternal grandparents place on the first day of Chinese New Year. All of us kids would take turns wishing every elder family member good fortune with these Chinese auspicious sayings, and in return we would get red pockets/envelopes that had money in it. Then we would all go raid the 攢盒, which is basically a traditional circular sweets tray that contains many different treats in it.
Circles symbolize togetherness, and red is of course the colour of good fortune and happiness. (So it would look like this, but our grandparents’ 攢盒 would always be red)"
Isaac’s favourite treat from the tray was an older candy, Sugus. “I would always pick the lemon ones ❤
Another really old school one that’s good is the white rabbit candy.”
Keeping Stories Alive
A large part of what seems to tie so many Lunar New Year's stories together is the role of elders in preserving traditions and taking the lead to make the festival time special. In Root & Seed’s blog post, Grandparents: Through the Looking Glass, Anika and guest Kathy Lee explored the importance of cherishing the past, and seeing grandparents as important culture-keepers with unique perspectives and stories to tell. Learning parts of our own family history can often change our understanding of our present selves, and even shape how we view the future. Even the ancient Nian could be considered a completely misunderstood player in its own tale, if it were not for storytellers sharing another side of a familiar narrative, and those who are willing to listen.
Shot on iPhone 12 Pro Max I Chinese New Year – Nian. Credit: Apple
Preserving stories and lessons from older generations can be immensely rewarding. We encourage you to check out Root & Seed’s Conversation Tool, where, for a limited time, we have released a Lunar New Year-themed conversation pack to share with your loved ones over this year’s festival time.
Getting the Family Together with Activities
After a year of uncertainty and with last year’s Lunar New Year landing at the height of the pandemic most were forced to meet over Zoom and celebrate in more subdued ways, so this year many are looking forward to meeting with their extended families (albeit in tighter clusters) and inviting in health, happiness, prosperity and good wishes for the new year.
With that in mind, Root & Seed is excited to share with you our free, downloadable Lunar New Year Activity Book. Just print it out and learn more about how YOU celebrate Lunar New Year with your family. Enjoy some relaxing colouring pages, reflect on the festival with our questions activity, or bring good luck into the new year by eating taro with a traditional Wu Tau Goh recipe.
Download through the link below:
We’ve also partnered with two fabulous companies to help honour Chinese culture and give you access to toys, books, and puzzles that make great gifts for the little ones for Lunar New Year.
Bitty Bao is two amazing moms creating bilingual board books to help share Chinese culture, holidays, and language with the next generation. Available in both traditional and simplified characters, the "Celebrating Chinese New Year" book is just beautiful. Bitty Bao has generously offered a 10% discount on their books by using code ROOTSEED10 at checkout.
This offer expires February 7, 2022
Raising Little Dumplings invites you and your family and friends to explore Asian language, identity, and traditions through play! With original puzzles, activities, and other engaging products, they hope to make it easy for families to explore cultural traditions together. Raising Little Dumplings has graciously shared their Lunar New Year downloadable with our community.
What Lunar New Year traditions, heirlooms, or memories do you and your loved ones associate with this time of year? Comment below!