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Lunar New Year Traditions

The Many Faces of New Year's Feasts


The Many Faces of New Year's Feasts


Some Lunar New Year traditions are being left behind by modern society, but few Taiwanese can resist their memories of the holiday's flavors and smells.



The Many Faces of New Year's Feasts

By Jin Chen
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 465 )

The Lunar New Year holiday is once again upon us, a time when many wonder what others are preparing for their New Year's Eve feast. This quintessential traditional Chinese holiday celebration blends the bustle of a family reunion with memories of meals past. Most Taiwanese remember when they were little, craning their necks above the table in anticipation of the many dishes about to be served, a slice of nostalgia that makes the temptation of the "New Year's flavors" impossible to resist. In every holiday dish can be found the touch of a mother's warm hands and the legacy passed on from the family's ancestors.

Memories aside, many families in today's Taiwan do not bother preparing the traditional New Year's dinner on their own. Convenience store sales of pre-ordered holiday dishes have grown 10-30 percent this year compared to 2010, and online sales of holiday dishes and hot pot ingredients have doubled. Hotels, restaurants and even freelance caterers have all tried to gain a foothold in this increasingly competitive market.

But while these services give families "simplified" choices and save them trouble, the dishes can lack the familiar flavors and smells of the past. The festive atmosphere of families reuniting for the Lunar New Year holiday may not have changed, but the feast's menu has grown more homogenous from household to household. At the same time, memories of the dense steam rising when grandma steamed her cakes and the smell of incense used to worship ancestors have become less vivid. Children no longer have the opportunity to follow their parents around as they prepare the feast. Inevitably, the potency of the traditional New Year atmosphere has faded.

There are still many families, however, that insist on preparing the feast themselves, hoping to recapture the flavors of their past. Families from different regions and diverse cultural backgrounds embrace different ways to celebrate the Lunar New Year.

The Feasts of the Famous

For more than 40 years, the family of Capital Group chairman T.W. Chen has been converging from places all around Taiwan at the family's old home in Kaohsiung for Lunar New Year festivities. The dishes are prepared by an old chef who has been with the family for those four decades. In the past, the chef would pull out millstones and grind out rice milk to be used to make steamed rice cakes. At the end of the holiday when family members were ready to return to their homes, the grandmother would steam the cakes, called fagao ("prosperity cakes"), and hand them out to her children and grandchildren, as a wish for success in the coming year.

The family of Liu Jinliang, the vice president of China-based carmaker Geely Automobile Holding, celebrates in a different way. Northern Chinese traditionally must eat chicken, duck, fish and pork on Chinese New Year's Eve, and after their sumptuous reunion dinner, family members then wrap dumplings together. The dumplings, shaped like silver bullion, are boiled and served on Chinese New Year's Day to bring prosperity in the new year.    

For the family of Lee Chien-lung, the head of New Taipei City's Civil Affairs Bureau, eating congee on Chinese New Year's Day is forbidden. Those who violate this taboo, common among agricultural families, will meet with rain whenever they go out to take care of an important matter in the coming year.

Shin Yeh Restaurant chairwoman Lee Xiu-ying pays special attention to her orientation when going out during the Lunar New Year holiday. If the east is an auspicious direction, and Lee wants to extend New Year's greetings to households to her west, she must first head east before circling back to her destination.

Halloween on New Year's Eve

The customs practiced by people from Yunnan in southwestern China are also distinct. A Yunnanese New Year's Eve is similar to Halloween: Small groups of children go from house to house starting at the stroke of midnight and yell outside each door, "Uncle, Auntie, Happy New Year. May the gate of wealth open wide. May gold, silver and treasure flow in, flow in and not flow out. May gold, silver and treasure fill up your house."

If the resident does not respond, the children repeat the call progressively louder, until somebody opens the door and gives the children a red envelope. To deal with these uninvited children, each household must designate one person to stay at home, with the understanding that he or she will have to stay up all night.

As for New Year's Eve feasts among the Minnan people, sweets were traditionally everywhere – white radish cakes, fried brown sugar cakes, red bean niangao that is deep-fried and crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, and sugar-coated peanuts that are dyed red and white and show up in the traditional candy tray welcoming guests.

One common setting for the Lunar New Year gathering was grandfather's traditional three-section compound. Grandmother would be busy in front of the stove, her stooped figure trying to get a wood fire going, while children had fun licking the glue on the back of spring couplets and sticking them on the wall, and family members engaged in a marathon session of ancestor worship.

Firecrackers popped throughout the night, a New Year's cash gift was placed under the pillows of children's beds, and a long string of firecrackers covered the entrance.

But in many households today, grandma's kitchen is in disrepair, and the New Year's Eve feast has devolved into a simple hot pot, leaving people nostalgic for past reunions where the family crowded around a square table sitting on long benches. And sometimes it was standing room only.

Memories of the Lunar New Year are like firecrackers – once lit, they can't be extinguished. The New Year's feast of delicacies represents a mosaic of rare insights into each generation's customs and backgrounds that links families together and carves out a small piece of history for everybody.

So, what is your family having for the Chinese New Year's feast?

Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier