Lions and Dragons and Dumplings, Oh My
In ancient times, according to legend, a fierce monster descended on a small Chinese village at the time of the New Year and threatened to destroy it. It returned the following winter, ravaging the village and terrorizing its people. By the third year, the villagers were ready: They hung red banners to ward off evil, and made fearsome noises. The beast was scared away, and the town celebrated for days. Chinese New Year is still celebrated with firecrackers, banners, parades, and feasts to protect against evil, prepare for a fresh start, and to herald the arrival of spring.
Also called the Lunar New Year, the holiday begins on the second new moon after the winter solstice, usually in late January or early February. In 2015 it begins on February 19, ushering in the Year of the Sheep. The celebration ends 15 days later with the Lantern Festival, a spectacular procession featuring musicians, clowns, martial arts clubs, and a long, fierce dragon.
Preparations for the New Year begin well in advance, marked by traditions rich in symbolism and superstition. Families clean the house from top to bottom to sweep out bad luck at the start of the holiday. People buy new clothes and pay off debts. It’s customary to get a haircut before the holiday, because the Chinese word for hair is similar to the word for prosperity, and you don’t want to cut your prosperity as the year is starting.
To Celebrate Chinese New Year:
- Fill your home with fruit and plants.Oranges represent wealth; tangerines with leaves are good luck. A plant that blooms on New Year’s Day brings good fortune.
- Let the kids stay up late on New Year’s Eve.According to an old saying, the longer the children stay up, the longer their parents will live.
- Invite friends and family to a New Year’s feast.Serve symbolic foods: a whole fish, for bounty; dried oysters, for a successful business; fried dumplings, which resemble golden coins.
- Decorate your home with chun lian—couplets offering good wishes—written in Chinese characters on red paper.
- Give your children small red envelopes, called lai seeor hong-bao,with lucky money tucked inside.
- Contact local Chinese organizationsto find out where you can see a Lion Dance or Lantern Festival.
Recipe: Chinese Almond Cookies
These delicious almond shortbread cookies are a staple in Chinese-American households during the holidays.
- 2 cups flour
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 2 teaspoons baking soda
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 egg
- 1/2 pound (2 sticks) butter-flavored shortening (such as Crisco)
- 2 1/2 teaspoons almond extract
- Almond halves or slivers
- Preheat the oven to 325˚.
- In a large bowl, combine the flour, sugar, baking soda, and baking powder.
- Add the shortening, egg, and almond extract; knead the ingredients until just combined (do not overknead).
- Place 1-inch balls of the dough on 2 ungreased cookie sheets, about 2 inches apart. Place an almond half or sliver in the center of each, pressing down slightly. Bake 18–20 minutes, until cookies are big and yellow (avoid overbaking).
For larger cookies, make larger dough balls. Makes about 30 cookies.
Recipe from Susan Caughman.