I talk about celebrating Lunar New Year (also known as Chinese New Year or Spring Festival), which marks the start of the new year based on the Chinese lunisolar calendar.
Hi! Alena here and welcome to the third episode of the Along Came English Podcast.
Hey. How’ve you been? It’s been a while. I sincerely apologise for my absence. I got really sick a few weeks ago and then lost my voice. And it just wasn’t podcast-appropriate to have somebody… to have someone constantly coughing with a really bad scratchy voice here.
As you can… as you might be able to tell I haven’t completely recovered, I still have a slight cough. And unfortunately a bit of a scratchy voice today, but I do… definitely sound better than a week ago.
So yea… in another lesson, I’ll talk a bit about getting sick, the flu, getting a sore throat, going to the doctor’s, but today I just wanted to talk about the “Lunar New Year” or… we sometimes call it, “Chinese New Year.” This is also called the “Spring Festival” in China.
Now this is a festival, celebration or even a holiday depending on where you currently live. Growing up in Brunei, we called this “Chinese New Year.” In Melbourne, it’s referred to as “Lunar New Year” for some reason. But it’s all pretty much the same.
So “lunar” is spelled L-U-N-A-R, and it’s anything relating to the moon. I guess, Lunar New Year can sound a bit odd because it’s a new year based on the moon – but this is the new year celebration based on the Chinese calendar. And this year is what is known as the year of the dog.
So… sorry about that… for this lesson, I’ll talk a bit about the sun, moon, calendars, a little bit about the Chinese zodiac, and then about the celebration itself, some of the traditions associated with it, and some of my own experiences celebrating Lunar New Year growing up.
So let me explain what the Chinese calendar is about first.
So… “solar” is anything relating to the sun. So words like “solar power” means power from or of the sun.
A “year” is known as a tropical year or a solar year, which is the time taken by the earth to make one revolution or pathway around the sun. And this course or pathway is called an “orbit.”
Now our current calendar, which is what we call the “Gregorian calendar” is an example of a solar calendar because the dates indicate the season and the apparent position of the sun relative to the stars.
“Lunar,” as I mentioned before, is anything relating to the moon. There’s no such thing as “lunar power” in reality, but it does make for an interesting fantasy/sci-fi story.
Now, the different shapes of the moon that you may observe at night relates to the portion of the moon reflecting sunlight. Now this changes as the moon orbits the earth and that’s called a “lunar phase.”
Now you get terms like “new moon,” which is when you don’t see the moon at all. And “full moon” is when you see a completely round moon. And “crescent moon,” which is that C-shape you often see in cartoons or animation.
Now the DreamWorks logo – the film studio – is of a boy fishing while sitting on the edge of a crescent moon.
The “lunar calendar” is based on the monthly cycles of the Moon’s phases and it’s, I guess, “year” or “lunar year” is about 11 days shorter than our tropical or solar year. So the “Islamic calendar” is a purely lunar calendar. And in general, the lunar calendar doesn’t really match with the seasons, since seasons are really a result of the earth’s orbit around the sun.
So if we put it together, the solar calendar is based on the position of the sun, the lunar calendar is based on the cycles of the lunar or moon phases. We have something called the “lunisolar calendar” – which is kind of a combination of the lunar month and the solar year.
So although the Lunar New Year is often said to be based on the lunar calendar, it’s actually in fact the lunar sol… the lunisolar calendar.
Sorry, I hope I haven’t been confusing you so far.
So the first day of the Lunar New Year falls on the new moon between the 21st of January and 20th of February. And celebrations run until the 15th day of the first calendar month.
Get that? Get that so far? I hope… I really hope I haven’t confused you.
But yea… so Chinese New Year or Lunar New Year is based on a calendar that combines the lunar phase and the solar year. Okay.
So when I was growing up in Brunei, I actually experienced these different calendars.
So Brunei follows the Gregorian calendar of course, as with most of the world. But every year, we would celebrate Hari Raya, which is a celebration that marks the end of the fasting month for Muslims, and then the Lunar New Year for the Chinese community.
So the Islamic calendar, as I mentioned previously, is a purely lunar calendar and has a shorter year. So that meant that Hari Raya would sort of come a little earlier every year and eventually cycle through the year, where else the Lunar New Year usually comes around the start of the month.
And of course there are other festivals associated with the Chinese calendar which I grew up with, such as the Tomb-Sweeping Festival in April, Hungry Ghost Festival in August, Mid-Autumn Festival in September. And then we also have Mooncake Festival (<- This is the same as Mid-Autumn Festival), Winter Solstice Festival in December. So there’s quite a number of festivals we do celebrate throughout the year. But this is again based on the lunisolar calendar.
Yea… and I pretty much just followed my parents whenever these festivals came around. So it’s not like I know all the dates and traditions associated with them.
In Melbourne, there is a large enough Chinese community where you see posters and advertisements for gifts and foods to celebrate the different festivals. So it’s not quite in the same scale as in Asian countries, but it is still accessible here in Australia.
Chinese Zodiac & Mythology
So let’s talk a bit about the Chinese zodiac.
So this is a 12-year cycle of 12 animal signs, where each year is represented by an animal. So this is different from the 12 astrology zodiac signs which I think is usually monthly. And yea… so things like, you know, Sagittarius, Leo, Taurus. Yea… so that’s different… that’s a different system from the Chinese zodiac. So where astrology is associated with constellations, Chinese zodiac is not.
Now I won’t go into all the details because… you know, astrology and zodiacs in general kind of go over my head – meaning that I don’t understand it that much. But yeah, each animal sign has its own attributes and if you were born in a year that was represented by a particular animal, then you would be considered of… sorry, you were considered to be of that zodiac sign.
So I was born in 1985, which is represented by the ox or the cow. My dad was born in 1946, which is the year of the dog. And now he’s celebrating his 72nd birthday.
With the Chinese zodiac, there are horoscopes. Again similar to, I guess… the astrology, zodiac signs… which is a forecast of a person’s future depending on the year they were born and the supposed influence of the person’s particular relationship to the 12-year cycle. And there are compatibilities with other zodiac signs.
Now, what I found… what I find, sorry, most interesting about the Chinese zodiac is the mythology – the story behind this system. And the 12 animals actually start with the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog, and finally with the pig.
And… there are variations of different folk stories, but generally it has an emperor that decreed the years of the calendar would be named for each animal in the order they arrived to a meeting – which was organised by the emperor of course.
In one particular version, the ox, being wise, made a slow but head start – meaning it started much earlier than everybody else. And then the rat secretly hitched a ride without the ox knowing. And when the ox was near the location, the rat jumped off and quickly ran towards the location and was the first at the meeting.
So yea… so… this 12-year cycle, it always starts off with the year of the rat.
So you may have noticed something interesting about this… these zodiac signs – there are actually no cats. So a version… another version of this myth or story was that the rat tricked the cat that it was the next day and the cat altogether missed the meeting – which, you know… again the rat hitched a ride off the ox.
Another version had the rat and cat hopped on the back of the ox who was crossing the river to get to the meeting. And then the rat pushed the cat into the river, who eventually unfortunately drowned.
So yea, there’s a supposed animosity between the rat and the cat.
And there is a Japanese comic or “manga” based on the Chinese zodiac called “Fruits Basket” – which started from… in 1998 and continued until 2006. So yea… so this is fairly old. But yea… was very popular at the time, it became… it eventually became an anime. And it was one of the most popular manga/anime at the time, both in Japan and US.
And the story is about an orphan girl who becomes involved with a family whose 12 members are cursed and possessed by the animals of the Chinese zodiac. So yea… It is a fantasy story of course. It is also a romantic comedy based in high school. But yea… it’s also a bit of a tear-jerker, as with most Japanese comics – “tear-jerker” meaning it sort of makes you cry because of its drama and sad stories.
But yea… it does deal with some pretty mature themes like prejudice, relationship, honesty, and the character development here is pretty awesome. Now I read and watched this in my early 20s, so high school themes are not really my cup of tea anymore, but it definitely made an impression on me back then.
So yea… so… moving on.
So the… I guess the thing about, you know, this Chinese zodiac… is that although this whole system is engrained in the Chinese calendar and very much a part of a long tradition, its origins are actually not known.
To be honest, Lunar New Year is celebrated with the represented animal, which this year is the dog. But realistically, I think there isn’t really much more than that. I mean if you are into Chinese zodiac, horoscopes and fengshui, then it is more meaningful. But you know, most people tend to look at it as a symbol.
Lunar New Year activities
So we’ve talked about the calendar, the zodiac, now let’s talk about the actual celebration. Now if the idea of Lunar New Year is kind of new to you, the best point of reference would probably be Christmas. So instead of white decorations, think of red decorations. Instead of Christmas songs, think of Chinese songs about the festival. And what I’ll try to do here is describe things you might see or experience should you ever have the opportunity to celebrate it.
Now popular themes generally concern things like good fortune, happiness, prosperity or wealth, longevity. And you know, bringing back in Chinese zodiac… so the horoscopes are usually about finding out what your fortune will be like for the year if that’s something you’re into.
So during this time, you’ll see a lot of objects that are believed to be associated with good fortune. So red is considered to bring good luck and good fortune – duh.
During this time, you’ll see, you know, many people wearing red clothes. Hanging red decorations outside and inside their house.
Mandarins, in Cantonese – which is a dialect of Chinese, means gold. And they’re kinda like, I guess, roses during Valentine’s Day, supermarkets will have them on special and, you know, they’ll mark up the price for the special occasion. And households will decorate their tables with a bowl of mandarins as a symbol of good fortune and prosperity.
Associated with the celebration, there are usually fireworks. Now in Melbourne, there were fireworks on the first Saturday after Lunar New Year. But when I was in Malaysia, they occurred, I think almost everyday of the festival. Firecrackers are often lit as well, but I think they’re banned in some countries so… because of the potential risk of injury.
And yea… again a lot of red decorations.
And another thing you might, I guess, hear, are Lunar New Year songs, which is about the festival in a Chinese dialect or in a Chinese language. I don’t… I think I may have heard English versions, but yea… they’re not that common I think. And yea… these can be heard on radio, at the mall, sometimes at supermarkets and things like that.
And sometimes, if you’re lucky, you may see lion dances with loud drums. Sometimes there are dragon dances, but lion dances tend to be more common. So lion dances are often performed by a troupe. So “troupe” is spelled T-R-O-U-P-E which is a group of dancers, actors or entertainers that perform at different venues.
So they often have a band as well that play drums, and then a group of performers that wear lion costumes dancing to the drum beat.
Now the lion costume is quite unlike the yellow/brown colour that is typical of what a normal lion looks like. These costumers are colourful. They’re bright. They’re decorated. And it consists of a head with a movable mouth, and movable eyelids with long eyelashes and then it has a cape attached to the back of the head.
There are usually 2 persons that wears 1… that makes up the 1 lion. They wear matching pants, again, bright and colourful that makes up the legs of the lion. So the first person’s head will fit into the lion’s head and manoeuvres the mouth and eyelids. And then the second person is crouched behind the first person under the cape. And they work together to do this lion dance.
Now typically in these performances, there are 2 lions, and then another performer with a big head – as a costume of course, that symbolises a child that plays with the lions. And what happens is that the lions will play games usually using cabbages, mandarins, red packets.
You know, and if you can imagine, you know, if you have dogs or cats, and you’ve watched them play with their toys – it’s kind of like that. It’s a playful, fun… and they move according to the rhythm of the drum… the music… the drumbeat, sorry. And the audience can even participate by feeding the lions with these things.
Often with these performances, they will have firecrackers as well. Maybe not during the performance but sort of as a side thing, maybe at the end or the start of the performance. And the whole thing is really… is very loud, very festive.
And the last time I saw the lion dance in Melbourne was actually a number of years ago in a restaurant in Chinatown. And I was there during Lunar New year, and the troupe was travelling from restaurant to restaurant. And they didn’t just perform outside, they actually went into the restaurants.
They moved around the tables and danced around and brought the drums in as well. And then every couple of restaurants, they would light up firecrackers, and the streets would be littered with red from all the firecrackers.
So yea… so that was a really nice experience and… as part of the festival.
Food & Gathering
Now with regards to the family, there is usually a… what we call, a “reunion dinner” on New Year’s Eve. So I think now that it’s become more common for children to move away – you know, to the city or a different state… to a different state or different country. This tradition has become more significant. And it’s not that different from say, Thanksgiving family dinner or Christmas dinner that you may see in Western movies.
And this is often celebrated in… I guess, you know, in the grandparents’ home. And if the kids are from a different state… are coming from a different state or country they’ll bring the grandkids along. And there’s this family reunion with a sit-down dinner.
Now I know for some families, they go out to restaurants for their reunion dinner. But in my family, my mom would usually prepare this feast, with dishes she would generally only prepare for this occasion.
And these dishes are also symbolic because their names are, again, associated with good fortune. There would always be fish, abalone. There’s always a new year dish with bamboo shoots, vermicelli – “vermicelli” is a type of rice noodles, and the dish will also have something we called black fungus – it doesn’t sound very appetising but anyway, this is a very common Chinese ingredient. And sometimes she would put dried mussels in there. And yea… she would cook this with oyster sauce and a particular Chinese sauce we have called fermented red tofu.
Yea, so I know this dish sounds a bit weird, but it’s actually one of my favourite dishes. And yea… again, it’s usually cooked around this time of the year but my mum is actually coming over next month. So yea… I’m actually going to ask her to cook it for me even though it’s past the Lunar New Year then. But yea… it’s not a difficult dish to prepare, and of course you know… some dishes are best prepared by moms… you know what I mean.
And another dish associated with Lunar New Year is a Cantonese-style raw fish salad, which in English is translated the “Prosperity Toss.” In Cantonese it’s called “lohei.” And this dish is believed to have been created in Malaysia or Singapore. So yea… this isn’t a very… I guess, it’s not really a well known dish in China. So those of us who come from South East Asia, I think, tend to associate this with the festival.
So this dish is usually served in local restaurants as a kind of appetiser. And it’s made of ingredients like shredded carrot, white radish, onion, pomelo – which is a type of fruit, crackers, raw salmon etc. Again, the names of these ingredients are associated with prosperity, good fortune. Now these ingredients are prepared and served – but not mixed yet – on a large plate. And then a dressing made up of oil, plum sauce, rice vinegar and other stuff is poured over the dish.
And what happens is that the entire table is… stands up to toss the salad together with chopsticks while saying various auspicious wishes out loud. And part of this tradition is that the height of the toss reflects the growth in one’s fortunes and luck. And it’s actually quite nice, and is quite a sight to see in Chinese restaurants during Lunar New Year.
So for the rest of the festival, we have this thing called “open house” – which you have an open invitation for friends and extended family to come and visit you. And what happens here is that the host will provide some snacks, drinks for visitors. Sometimes a small group will drop by for a short while. Sometimes a large group will stay for several hours.
And when I was living in Brunei, a lot of these visitors would be employees from my father’s company, his clients, my mother’s old colleagues when she used to work at the bank, or when she worked as a teacher, their friends. And likewise, we would visit their houses in return.
Some were relatively quiet visits. Some were organised so that it became more of a gathering, and even party sometimes. There were always snacks. Sometimes alcohol if it was in the evening. Sometimes gambling if there was a crowd. This wasn’t restricted to just the parents of course, when I was old enough, I could invite my friends over. And my siblings’ friends also came over as a group too.
Lunar New Year snacks
Snacks or new year confectionary. Yea… actually they deserved to be mentioned. You can probably get them all year round, but they pretty much come out in bulk during this time. And again, like… like roses during Valentine’s Day, they also get marked up pretty high.
So something that I really, really like, I really enjoy are pineapple tarts – particularly the homemade fresh ones are my favourite, and the more buttery the pastry, the better.
We also have something called cashew and peanut cookies. They’re really, really good as well.
And there’s this thin wafer roll that we call “love letters.” I don’t know why but they’re also very popular at this time of the year.
We also have fried prawn crackers, which are… they’re actually sold as dried chips that you fry up in oil and then it sort of triples in size and quite often you get this as a starter or appetiser in Chinese restaurants. But yea… again, they’re also really popular at this time of the year.
And there’s something we call “new year cake.” So yea… again this is very different from what you would imagine a cake to be. It’s actually made of glutinous rice flour and sugar. It only comes out at this time of the year with Lunar New Year. It’s sold as a round lump, pretty much wrapped in cling wrap with a red sticker on the top. And it’s brown. It’s sweet. It’s very solid and sticky.
So you can try to slice it and eat it by itself, but usually what we do is we’ll, you know, slice it up into pieces and then we’ll dip it in a kind of egg wash.. or like, you know, if you take an egg, you beat it up and dip it in that egg mixture and then you just fry it lightly.
And often people will have difficulty slicing it because it’s so sticky, but if you put it in the fridge for a while, it’s easier to cut.
So in the mornings of the Lunar New Year, a plate of this is fried up and served. Kind of as part of breakfast, but you know, you can eat it whenever you like of course. And I’ve seen this fried together with a slice of yam in the past, but it’s not as common and I think I’ve only seen that once actually.
So yea… A common tradition which is actually quite significant for this festival is the gift of red packets filled with money. Now these are red envelopes often decorated with Chinese zodiac pictures, or something related to the festival. Nowadays, you can find different colours like pink or yellow, but they’re usually red.
And generally this is the responsibility of a married person to give to children or kids of friends and family. And adult children will often give a red packet to their parents as well. So of course, these rules are not that strict these days, you know, some people don’t get married, or they don’t find a spouse until they are much older, people get divorced etc.
And there are also no strict rules regarding how much to give. So generally you’d give more to immediate family, otherwise, you’d give a relatively small but not stingy amount to kids of acquaintances. So depending on how well known you are in the community, this can be pretty costly, and being well known means you can’t be too stingy either.
Of course, if you were not married, you could just avoid all this.
But yea… if I’m not mistaken, we usually give red packets starting from the first day of new year. And typically, you would prepare red packets to give to your immediate family and then prepare a set of generic packets that you give to friends’ kids.
Now of course, you don’t give strangers… to strangers’ kids in public, but say if you meet at a mutual friend’s place for open house, you are obliged to give a red packet.
Now, the traditions and customs associated with Lunar New Year can vary between different countries and regions, different Chinese communities as well, and upbringing. It’s mainly celebrated in Asian countries, but you know, due to the migration of Chinese communities to Australia, it is celebrated here on quite a large scale.
Different Lunar New Year experiences
So for me, this festival is largely family-oriented. So Lunar New Year is different for me when I am in South East Asia with my immediate family, and living by myself here in Melbourne. And a lot of people I know who have migrated here don’t celebrate it the way they would back home. And I guess if you consider a significant cultural festival and holiday in your country and then tried to celebrate that in a different country, it’s just not the same.
So last year, I had the opportunity to celebrate with my family in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. This was something that I hadn’t done for years. And I think the last time I had celebrated Lunar New Year with my family was maybe 10 years before?
Because it’s not a public holiday here, tickets are very expensive at this time of the year because it’s still considered peak season, so I just don’t get to fly home during that time. And having not celebrated it for such a long time, I mean there were a lot of customs that I wasn’t sure of or that I just had forgotten.
So when I was back there, there was a miscommunication because I didn’t know that reunion dinner was on New Year’s Eve, and my family was waiting for me because I had lessons scheduled during dinner time. Awkward. But anyway… yea well, we managed to get through that.
We had a store-bought prosperity toss salad which came in a box, and unfortunately wasn’t great and we substituted the raw fish for oysters. So yea, so it was more of a gesture. Not exactly a delicious thing unfortunately.
And yea, there were fireworks almost… Sorry, that was the cat.
So yea, there were fireworks almost on a daily basis. I’m not sure if it went on for 2 weeks, but it was pretty regular. And I could kind of see it from my apartment.
The management of the apartment blocks I lived in arranged for a lion dance troupe to perform on the ground floor where the residents could watch and participate.
We had a lot of mandarins. My dad bought a few boxes that took a few weeks to finish.
And for some reason, I didn’t get my hands on new year confectionary.
But we did pay a visit to an aunt that I hadn’t seen for over 10 years. She tends to… Oh, sorry. Excuse me.
Sorry about that. Yea, the cat was sleeping in my bedroom and then she wanted to get out.
So where were we?
So yea, so we paid a visit to an aunt that I hadn’t seen for over 10 years as well. And she tends to spend her time between Singapore and America, which are where her kids now live, and we just happened to catch her when she was around. Thankfully she had a whole stash of new year confectionary which she was very generous to offer to us, and I very enthusiastically accepted. And yea, she had these awesome pineapple tarts which I couldn’t resist.
And in many ways, this… for us, is more of a family holiday than Christmas. Yeah, which is pretty awesome. But yea, I don’t think there are any Lunar New Year movies the way that there are Christmas movies.
But again, you know, I’m not sure. I don’t really watch a lot of Chinese movies. But yea, growing up I definitely never really came across one. So yea, and I think… I think that’s kind of it really.
My celebration in Melbourne was relatively quiet. We actually had a hot pot with a small group of friends which was pretty awesome. Didn’t quite wear red the whole time. You know, no red decorations or anything of the sort. Yea… but otherwise I think it’s nice to be able to celebrate it with friends, who, I guess, have had some experience with it and who understood the significance of it as well.
But yea… anyway, well I think I’ll finish there.
Thank you so much for listening. And if you have any questions or if you’re curious about this festival, feel free to message me on Facebook and things like that or make a comment.
But otherwise, yea, I hope you have a lovely day and an awesome week. And I promise I will publish another episode as soon as I can. I’m really, really… I’m really so sorry for this delay. But yea, have a good one. Bye.