Most people celebrate the new year on January 1, but Chinese people follow the lunar calendar for their annual cycle, and it’s become one of the world’s largest festivals enjoyed by all ethnicities.
In Hawaii, locals take this celebration very seriously, as everything you do is to bring as much good luck as possible.
Chinese New Year lands on a different day each year, on the new moon between January and February, so for 2020 it falls on January 25 — marking the start of the Year of the Rat. Chinese horoscope experts predict it will be a year filled with auspicious financial potential, lots of socializing and time to build a good reputation.
This is a time for remembering ancestors, worshipping deities, and celebrating with loved ones to help each other get a fresh start in all endeavors. Festivities run for two weeks following the designated day, and the 15th day is marked with a celebration called the lantern festival, where the streets are lit with candles and lanterns to guide ancestral spirits home.
Good luck rituals are key in Chinese culture. If you’ve never celebrated it in Hawaii like a local, here are some basic customs to ensure you have a very successful year.
Everyone looks forward to the red envelopes, or Lai See, that are given at new year. Traditionally, these are given to younger family members (mostly children and teens) as a blessing to help suppress aging and the challenges of the coming year. But many bosses also give red envelopes to their employees with their annual bonuses in them, as well.
Feed the lion!
Lion dances are held throughout the year, but you’ll see many of them around Hawaii during the new year festivities. In fact, you’ll see all the lion dance clubs gathered in Chinatown for Choy Cheng, which is always the Friday before Chinese New Year (this year it’s on February 1). Whether you’re at a new year event or not, be sure to feed the lion some cash — better yet, in a red envelope — so you can receive its blessing as it chases away the evil spirits.
Since the narcissus blooms yellow and white flowers early in the year, the fragrant blossom symbolizes gold, silver and wealth. Narcissus bulb carving and cultivation is an art, and the best carvers get them to grow into different sizes and shapes so the blooms look like sculptures. If the narcissus blooms on Chinese New Year, it is said to bring extra wealth and good fortune throughout the year. It is reputed to augment/symbolize the hard work put into careers, so it’s an excellent gift for those who are seeking career advancement and luck.
Avoid meat – eat jai!
It’s believed that avoiding meat on the first day of the new year will ensure longevity and enhance spirituality, so people eat jai, or monk’s food, a hearty vegetarian stew. Everyone has their own jai recipe, but the main ingredients usually include bean curd sticks, long rice, tree ear fungus, lily buds, mushrooms, black moss, cabbage and tofu. Every item is connected to symbolism for longevity, blessings, prosperity, and health. You can order this at many Chinese restaurants at this time of the year.
The traditional new year cake, called niangao or just gao, are disks of steamed glutinous rice flour kneaded with Chinese slab brown sugar and a bit of peanut oil. Some people like to add coconut, as well. You will probably buy it when it's soft and floppy; let it harden for a couple of days so you can cut it. After a few more days, if it gets too hard, slice pieces of it, dredge it in an egg batter, and fry it up for a snack. These are available at many Chinatown merchants.
Good luck charms
If you need extra luck, good luck charms are attractive and easy to attach to your purse, phone, keychain or car mirror. You can find a charm for everything, like prosperity, longevity, safety, love, power, or abundance. (Don't worry about knowing the symbols, as all charm merchants have charts to help you.) Many people change their charms each year to match the ruling zodiac sign to help them, so you’ll see a lot of pig charms this year.
Red paper scrolls
During Chinese New Year people hang small messages or wishes on red scrolls called Fai Chun in their homes and offices, hoping for good fortune during the year. There are many different Fai Chun, depending upon the occasion or need: some asking for sufficient food, harmonious homes, good grades, or good health. Of course, the popular ones ask for prosperity or general good luck. The handwritten ones are available at booths in Chinatown during the New Year festivities; after that, you can buy pre-printed ones at retailers around Chinatown.
Candied fruits and veggies
In old times, Chinese people filled a red lacquer box with six or eight candied items. These were served with tea in a symbolic ceremony for the New Year. A few pieces of candied fruits and vegetables are to be placed at the bottom of the teacups before filling with tea to offer. Each item carries specific meaning, and if you really wanted to get into it, this is the symbolism for some popular items:
- Lotus root is the symbol for marriage.
- Lotus seeds symbolize fertility.
- Winter melon is the symbol for abundance.
- Kumquats, due to their round shape and gold color, symbolize gold coins for prosperity.
- Red melon seeds are for happiness, while watermelon seeds are for fertility. So be careful on which one you choose!
- Ginger is for longevity.
- Water chestnuts provide unity.
- Carrots, due to their high sugar content, symbolize a sweet time, meaning good times ahead.
- Everyone loves the candied coconut shavings, but did you know that they are the icon for resilience in life? This symbolizes strength, survival, and the ability to give life.
Most importantly: Be sure to greet everyone with a hearty “Kung Hee Fat Choy!” (Happy New Year!) and you’ll be welcoming the Year of the Rat with gusto.