Both this weekend and next are a whirlwind of New Year’s Dinners and banquets. The food is amazing and the traditions are heavy with meaning and symbolism. I take all this stuff for granted, but I thought you might like a glimpse into my world.
Given the importance of food in Chinese culture, it is not surprising that food plays a major role in Chinese New Year celebrations. “Lucky” foods are served through the two week Chinese New Year celebrations.
A formal banquet will have nine different courses. The word for nine sounds like the word for long lasting and represents wishes for a long life. We start with platter of five different cured meats known as “the five blessings of the new year,” referring to longevity, riches, peace, wisdom and virtue.
Every dish that follows has some reference to health, wealth, long life and family. For example, the chicken is served whole with both head and tail to symbolize family togetherness. Tradition says the youngest must eat the head and the eldest eats the tail- or so says my big brother who may, or may not, have been messing with the rest of us.
Noodles represent a long life; an old superstition says that it’s bad luck to cut them. The Cantonese word for lettuce sounds like rising fortune, so it is very common to serve lettuce. Tangerines and oranges are passed out freely as those words sound like luck and wealth, respectively. 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. You don’t want to know what Elder Brother made us do with the head and tail.
At the formal Banquet it is common to see a Chinese Lion Dance performance as it is thought the Lions bring good luck and ward off the evil spirits. It is a colorful, raucous, and utterly joyful thing to behold.
The family celebration is no less delicious or joyful. This year my Mother is having food brought in because feeding the 26 members of my immediate family is a huge amount of work. (Master Chef in Chinatown if you are curious). I lost count of how many dishes Mother ordered, but it was divine. I brought tangerines from my tree, a sister in law brought the assorted candied “stuff” (ginger, lotus root, young coconut, lotus seeds and a few un-named and vaguely suspicious “things”. We ascribe to the “eat it now, ask what it is…never” rule).
After we are too stuffed to move, the eldest nieces move all the chairs into a huge semi circle and Number One Daughter-In-Law prepares the sweetened tea. Aunties and Uncles arrange themselves in the chairs in order of age and the cousins serve tea to each elder with a solemn “Gung Hay Fat Choy”. The elder sips the tea and gives the youth a red envelope stuffed with good luck money. There are 12 Uncles and Aunties plus my mom. How happy are the cousins after this little ritual?
So, Gung Hay Fat Choy to you and yours. May 2010 be filled with luck, prosperity and good health.