Travel inspiration and insider tips

Chinese New Year

4 years, 1 month ago

Chinese New Year – Beginner’s Guide

If you didn’t know monkeys were intelligent and witty with magnetic personalities, you probably aren’t up to speed on the intricacies of Chinese New Year either. This year is “The Year of the Monkey“. And if you were born in 1956, 1968, 1980, 1992 or 2004, the news is not that great. According to the Chinese Zodiac, 2016 isn’t going to be an auspicious year for Monkeys. But don’t let that deter you from celebrating the biggest event in the Chinese Calendar (read on for dozens of ways to turn your luck round). And if you’re not a monkey, well that’s even more reason to eat, drink and wear as much red as possible we say.

When is Chinese New Year?

Chinese New Year is officially the first day of the Chinese Lunar Calendar and marks the start of ‘Spring Festival’. The specific dates vary on the International Calendar, but always fall somewhere between January 21st and February 20th. This year it’s TODAY with the next two days also taken as official holidays. True traditionalists take a week, generally considered to be pushing your luck these days.

But then luck is what Chinese New Year celebrations are all about. Back in the day, farmers would appease their ancestors and the Gods in the hope of a good harvest. Now the Chinese community is just as likely to be aiming for good fortune on the SZSE. But the basic principle is the same: be generous to others and life will be generous to you.

For 2016, all Monkeys should know: lucky colours are white, blue and gold; if you’re travelling, fortune will follow you North, West or North West; and lucky numbers are 4 and 9.

7 Great Places to Celebrate Chinese New Year

  • San Francisco is the USA’s oldest Chinatown and world’s biggest. Legend has it that our modified version of Chinese food was born here. So if want to blame somewhere for the abomination that is Chop suey, you know where to look.
  • New York has nine Chinatowns but the most famous of all is in Manhattan. Almost as old as San Francisco’s and just as colourful and energetic, this is one that’s still growing – to the irritation of neighbouring Little Italy, at times.
  • Paris is home to one of Europe’s largest Chinatowns. It’s in the 13th arrondissement and known locally as the Triangle de Choisy. Big on skyscrapers, glass and chrome but a traditionalist at heart, its Chinese New Year celebrations are reliably extravagant and gorgeous.
  • Amsterdam was the first city in Europe to have a floating Chinese restaurant – of course – so you won’t be surprised to learn it also has a stunning Chinatown. It’s in the city centre Zeedijk district and if amazing New Year festivities get too much, you can enjoy a moment of peace in the lovely Zeedijk Buddhist Temple.
  • London starts and finishes its Chinese New Year celebrations in Trafalgar Square. The spectacular Grand Parade is enormous and crowds of thousands turn out every year to watch it cut a colourful, noisy swathe from Trafalgar through the West End to the city’s Chinatown. Back on the Square in the evening there’s a stunning firework display and hours of entertainment.
  • Milan is where you’ll find Italy’s oldest Chinatown and New Year celebrations here have been known to go on for weeks and are one of few to include a Lantern Festival. On the big day itself most of the festivities are centred around the city centre Chinatown and nobody goes home until they’ve at least glimpsed the incredible Grand Finale Masquerade.
  • Lyon was once the hub of the world’s silk industry, so no surprise to find it has a wonderful Chinatown and fantastic Chinese New Year celebrations. The city’s historic Guillotière district is where all the action happens. And, apart from the processions, parades and entertainment, the self-proclaimed ‘Gastronomic Capital’ is one of the best places in Europe for traditional banquets – if you can get a table.

Chinese New Year Traditions

From clothes to personal hygiene, housework to crying children, Chinese New Year is a minefield of tradition. So even if you’re only going for duck and dim sum, tread wisely. A year of ill-fortune can feel like a long, long time.

Wear red, it symbolises energy, good luck and happiness and nobody with even a hint of ancestry forgets a splash for New Year. If you don’t want to go full scarlet, invest in some red underwear, it’s thought to be particularly blessed.

Fish is the luckiest food in a New Year meal but, if you want to guarantee good fortune, eating an entire chicken by yourself is supposed to do the trick.

Don’t wash your hair or do housework during Chinese New Year in case you accidentally clean away your luck.

Lucky Red Envelopes are filled with money and given to children and grandchildren to bring them health, happiness and success in the coming year.

Houses, shops, restaurants and businesses are lavishly decorated before New Year with red lanterns, red paper cut outs, images of monkeys and other traditional ornaments. Ceremonial costumes, make-up and masks are celebration essentials. Shrines in the street and Temples are piled with colourful, exotic offerings. And if ever there was a time to see Chinatown (anywhere) looking its most splendid, this is it.

Fireworks and strings of firecrackers are a huge part of the celebrations, symbolising the burning of the old year and the welcoming of the new.

Chinese New Year for Children

The Chinese believe hearing a child cry on New Year’s Day is a terrible omen. So even the naughtiest get treats for at least 24-hours. And, understandably, keeping little ones entertained is a bit of a priority. London isn’t taking any chances and there are children’s events all over the city from ‘Chinese New Year Family Festival Day’ at the National Gallery to ‘Chinese New Year’ at the V&A Museum of Childhood. In Paris, Belleville Chinatown has incredible martial art exhibitions outside its Metro on New Year’s Day. Amsterdam’s legendary department store, De Bijenkorf on Dam Square, has Chinese themed children’s events for a week. And Manchester, Birmingham and Newcastle have packed their big, bustling Chinatowns with festivals, community performance, activities and entertainment, all designed to ward off so much as a hint of tears.

Parades and Processions

For visitors, it’s the huge and colourful Chinese New Year parades and processions that leave their mark. These flamboyant events are where you’ll see fantastically decorated and skilfully articulated Lions dancing along in troupes. Hundreds of traditionally dressed adults and children take part and look incredible. And the noise is as spine-chilling as the spectacle. But the highlight of every traditional parade, is the mighty Dancing Dragon whose elaborate masked heads and sinuous paper body can stretch for what looks like miles. Whatever else you miss in the excitement, don’t miss the this.

The Festival of Food

Apart from generosity and wearing red, nothing is more important to traditional Chinese New Year celebrations than sharing food with family and friends. The best Chinatown restaurants are booked up months in advance. No detail of a feast is overlooked from how plates are arranged to who sits where at the table. Ceremonial dishes are prepared weeks ahead. Everyone dresses up in new clothes (whether they need them or not). And there’s no such thing as a simple meal; think banquet and you’re heading in the right direction. If you can’t find a table or a friendly Chinese family to adopt you for the day, Asian Food Festivals, Street Food Festivals and countless cooking stands and stalls are part of the Chinese New Year festivities in most places now. So it’s unlikely you’ll go hungry anywhere that’s celebrating.

Two final words before you go, “Hóunián jíxiáng“. It means “Good luck for this Monkey Year“. Say it like you mean it and you too could be looking forward to a happy, lucky and blessed 2016.

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