For your celebration, it might help to get a bit of background before you delve into planning meals and traditions.
Since the Chinese lunar calendar has 13 months, the dates for Chinese New Year change every year. In 2014, it falls on January 31. Regardless of the date, celebrations often last for two weeks and include parades with costume-clad participants, fireworks, and a whole lot of dressing up and eating.
Copious amounts of long noodles are eaten in the hope that they turn into long life for the eater. Fish is left on the table as a reminder to spend wisely in the year to come and to “leave” something in the bank account. On the final day of celebration, participants feast on mountains of glutinous sweet rice cakes as a sign of unity and encouragement to reach for the highest in life, careers, and education.
Celebrants often give each other candy boxes filled with chocolate coins, dried candied lotus seeds and roots, and other dried and candied fruits and seeds. Each treat represents something. Candied lotus seeds may be given as a wish for purity and a fresh start, lotus roots for marital harmony, and candied kumquat for wealth and perfection.
The Chinese New Year celebration culminates in the dazzling Lantern Festival. Hand-painted paper lanterns featuring scenes from Chinese history and folk tales are hung in windows and carried through town. This is followed by the classic dragon dance when young men hold a bamboo, paper, and silk dragon high as they parade through the town.
Set the Celebration Scene
Now that you have an idea of some of the traditions surrounding Chinese New Year, you can settle into planning your own unique celebration.
When inviting your guests, make sure to ask them to arrive dressed in vibrant red, an essential part of the festivities. Red is said to banish evil spirits, so it is the color of choice. Black and white, on the other hand, represent bad luck and death, definitely unwelcome guests at any party.
Create your own Lantern Festival by filling your home with luminous Chinese lanterns hung from hooks or as centerpieces down your dining room table.
Welcome your guests with their own candy box featuring the items that best represent your wishes for them.
Pile on the Food
Make sure your guests arrive hungry -- the traditional Chinese New Year dinner is often an 8-course set menu. If you're feeling particularly adventurous, you can make each dish from scratch, but you can save yourself time and energy by pre-ordering your chosen menu from your favorite Chinese restaurant. Just make sure you order well in advance so you can get the menu you want.
Start the dinner with a clear soup such as abalone and chicken, followed by an array of appetizers like prawn toast, spring rolls, turnip cakes, scallops, dumplings, and oysters.
Next up are the main dishes which feature chicken, pork and vegetables, and the essential fish dish, which symbolizes prosperity, steamed with ginger and scallions. When you serve the fish, ask your guests to leave a bit to symbolize the prosperity you wish for each other in the coming year.
Stock up on Chinese tea which is served throughout the meal to aid digestion and calm stomachs rather full from feasting.
You can close your meal with a variety of options: a platter of fresh fruit, fortune cookies, coconut blancmange, banana fritters with caramel sauce, and ice cream with fresh lychees and longans.
Close out your Chinese New Year with sparklers, your own fireworks show and the giving of traditional red envelopes filled with money to wish even more prosperity upon your loved ones.
Photo credits: Caseman, Denise Chan, Kenny Louie, Dcubillas, Micah Sittig, Naotake Murayama, and author.