January 31, 2014 is Chinese New Year – the year of the horse. I haven’t been back to China to celebrate the Lunar New Year for the last 25 years and it was becoming a non-event. But this year, thanks to WeChat, I am feeling the holiday sentiment and feasting my eye on the mouth-watering New Year Eve banquets from around the world. Good wishes are coming in from family and friends in the forms of a running horse on fire, money flowing out of the water tap or falling from the sky, and elegant Chinese calligraphy such as 福 (happiness), 万事如意 (Luck), 发财 (Fortune)。

When I was a little girl, everyone would come home for the New Year Eve feast and thus it took tremendous planning and hard work on Grandma’s part to make the annual family reunion a success. While all of us sat around the two dinner tables watching the 5-hour-long New Year Eve Celebration program, chatting and laughing, Grandma was toiling in the crowded kitchen shared with 6 other families, making the dozen dishes fresh from the stove. She had already spent days preparing and processing all the ingredients for the meal of the year. Then the hot dishes would be brought to the tables by my aunt.

I remember staying up really late a few nights before New Year’s Eve helping my cousins making the egg dumplings and various other snacks. My favorite is the chicken soup with egg dumplings, thin rice noodle and spinach. Yum! One year, it started to snow late at night when everyone was busy working in the kitchen. We got so excited that my cousins and I ran outside with bowls in our hands to catch the snowflakes. Then we boiled the snow and drank it. Shanghai is cold and humid in winter but it rarely snows.

Chinese New Year is one of the longest celebrations as it is carried out for 15 days. It begins with the first new moon of the Lunar New Year and ends on the full moon day. Food is one of the key elements of this spring festival. Chinese dumplings, fish, spring rolls and traditional cakes called Nian Gao are the main dishes for the occasion. These dishes are not only delicious but also have symbolic significance. For example, the word for fish, “Yu,” sounds like the words both for wish and abundance. As a result, on New Year’s Eve it is customary to serve a fish at the end of the evening meal, symbolizing a wish for abundance in the coming year. For added symbolism, the fish is served whole, with head and tail attached, symbolizing a good beginning and ending for the coming year.

Cleaning and decorating the houses are major rituals of the Chinese New Year celebration. All these are done before New Year’s Eve day. Every corner of the house must be swept and cleaned in preparation for the New Year. SpringCouplets, written in black ink on large vertical scrolls of red paper, were put on the walls or on the sides of the gate-ways. On New Year’s Day, the children were given Red Lai-See Envelopes, good luck money wrapped in little red envelopes. I got to wear the new outfit hand-made by Grandma on New Year’s day and was expected to put on my best behavior. The Seventh Day of the New Year was called “everybody’s birthday” as everyone was considered one year older as of that date. (In traditional China, individual birthdays were not considered as important as the New Year’s date. Everyone added a year to his age at New Year’s time rather than at his birthday.) Each day of the 15 days of celebration of the Chinese New Year has its own traditions and rituals. Each day marks an important celebration, the last day being the Lantern Festival held on the 15th day.

Nowadays people go to restaurants for the New Year Eve dinner. I used to eat so much during those two weeks because I knew when it was over, we’d go back to our normal life that was far from abundance. Now folks have to watch their weight, cholesterol or sugar level. Things surely have changed. But I hope the essence of the New Year celebration will remain the same: family, love and hope. Someday in the near future I’ll make it home for the Lunar New Year.

Wishing the New Year will bring your happiness, good health and prosperity!