February is a happy month. Abundantly full of celebratory observations, there’s something for everyone, such as the anniversary of this column (12 years), Super Bowl Sunday and my birthday (both Feb. 7), Valentine’s Day, Fat Tuesday and the rich offerings of Black History Month.
Seeking a sense of renewal and a New Year’s repeat (because who doesn’t need a cheerful distraction), this wooden tiger decided to take a deep dive into Chinese New Year and explore the etiquette and customs celebrated by my friends who observe them.
Chinese New Year, also known as Spring Festival, Lunar New Year and the new moon festival, is the most important holiday in Chinese culture. It marks the beginning of a new year on the traditional Chinese lunar calendar signaling the end of winter and the beginning of spring. It begins on the new moon that appears between Jan. 21 and Feb. 20. In 2021, this lands on Friday and is the Year of the Ox in the Chinese zodiac.
The 12 Chinese zodiac animals in a cycle are not only used to represent years in China, but also are believed to influence people’s personalities, career, compatibility, marriage and fortune. In addition to the animals, there are five corresponding elements based on the year, hence me being born the year of a wood tiger.
The ox is considered an honest, dependable and determined animal representing patience and achieving goals through consistent effort.
The holiday, during non-COVID-19 years, brings about a massive global migration when faraway migrant workers and families return to their hometowns, often after a year, to reunite with family. Visits last two weeks to a month.
On New Year’s Eve, families are typically doing a thorough house cleaning in order to sweep away any ill fortune and make way for incoming good luck.
That evening is frequently regarded as an occasion for families to gather for the annual reunion dinner. The table is laid with 10 dishes and includes a whole fish to signal abundance, a whole chicken to symbolize unity and long noodles to represent a long life along with numerous other Chinese dishes with specific meanings.
Windows and doors are decorated with red paper-cuts and couplets, a pair of consecutive lines of poetry that create a complete thought or idea and are used as decoration. Popular themes among these paper-cuts and couplets include that of good fortune or happiness, wealth and longevity. Other activities include lighting firecrackers and giving money in red paper envelopes called hongbao.
New Year’s Day festivities include lion dances, dragon races and fireworks.
Superstitions abound, such as not taking the garbage out or washing one’s hair so as not to throw away good fortune.
The days following are a procession of visits to the homes of family and friends to wish them good luck in the year ahead.
This is a time for giving. Should you have the good fortune to be included in the festivities, here are some rules of etiquette to keep your hosts happy:
Greetings: “Happy New Year” or “Wish you happiness and prosperity!”
Gifts: Fruit or a fruit basket are welcome. Consider mandarin oranges, pineapple, kumquats, grapes, plums and pomelos, which symbolize good fortune based on either their golden color or the similar pronunciations to words like “wealth” in Chinese.
Flowers such as peonies, daffodils, orchids and peach blossoms are welcomed. Avoid white flowers, which are reserved for funerals.
Red envelopes, also known as packets or packs, containing money are typically given within a family or in the workplace. The closer the relationship, the higher the amount. Generally, older generations give to the younger unmarried ones and, once married, it’s tradition for the younger ones to give the red envelopes in return. Employees are given one on the last working day before New Year of $20 to $200 as a small holiday bonus. Bills should be new and crisp.
Numbers are very important in Chinese culture. Even amounts like 66 or 88 are good. But avoid four altogether, which symbolizes death. White envelopes are reserved for funerals. When selecting material gifts, factor in the superstitions and don’t present in sets of four; instead, give six to eight mandarin oranges, for example.
Present individual or group gifts to the most senior/oldest family member first.
Use two hands when giving or receiving a gift to show respect and appreciation toward the act and the giver.
Gifts are not opened on the spot. Express thanks and put it aside to open later.
Colors: Pay close attention to the color of the gift as well as the wrapping paper or bag in which it is delivered. Red, yellow and gold symbolize wealth and prosperity. Avoid white, as it is associated with funerals, and black or blue, as they are both synonymous with death.
As the Year of the Ox is welcomed more quietly around the globe, may its strength and steadfastness support our resiliency during these turbulent times. And may the wealth of this newfound knowledge bring thoughtful awareness and appreciation this Chinese New Year and beyond.
Bizia Greene is an etiquette expert and owns the Etiquette School of Santa Fe. Share your comments and conundrums at firstname.lastname@example.org or 505-988-2070.