Kung Hei Fat Choy: Celebrating Chinese New Year


If you haven’t guessed it yet…no, I don’t have a drop of Chinese blood in me, but I did grow up celebrating Chinese New Year. I remember standing in San Francisco’s Chinatown, confetti raining down from the onlookers in upper apartments, as I anxiously awaited the main event: The good luck dragon.

Truthfully, I’m not a big fan of boozy, calendar New Year’s. Everyone is rushing to be somewhere important, with someone special at midnight…because why? I guess I just like Chinese New Year’s customs more.

The date of Chinese New Year always falls on a new moon after the Chinese Lantern Festival on Jan. 15 and before Feb. 21. When I got married in 2013, I was secretly thrilled it landed on Chinese New Year (and relieved it didn’t fall near the Superbowl). This year, Chinese New Year falls on Thursday, Feb. 19.

In Chinese mythology, the new moon would also bring out a mythical creature, called “Nian,” who would eat livestock and crops unless villagers were able to scare him away with firecrackers and red paper decorations. Nian has since been captured by Taoist monk Hongjun Laozu. Phew.


Beginning 15 days before New Year’s, Chinese will begin celebrating by gathering for family reunions and large meals. Many Chinese believe that the New Year should be used to celebrate their elders and deceased relatives.

Families will clean their homes in the days before, “sweeping away” bad luck. Many will refrain from sweeping for days after New Year’s, so they don’t accidentally sweep away good luck.

Married couples and older relatives give red envelopes with money to unmarried friends and children for Chinese New Year. The amount of money given should always be in even numbers, as odd numbers are associated with cash given out at Chinese funerals. Giving $8 or $6 is common because these numbers are considered lucky, while $4 is unlucky.

Not unlike the tradition of putting up a Christmas tree, many Chinese will put a plum tree on display in their homes. Also similar to Christmas in the U.S., many Chinese filmmakers will release New Year’s themed movies around the celebrations–especially comedies.

sheepThis week the year of the sheep or ram begins, ending the year of the horse. People born under this sign are said to serene and calm. This may be your year if you were born between:

  • 2/5/1943 and 1/24/1944;
  • 1/24/1955 and 2/11/1956;
  • 2/9/1967 and 1/29/1968;
  • 1/28/1979 and 2/15/1980;
  • 2/15/1991 and 2/3/1992.

Not sure what your sign is? This is a handy chart. Many Americans make the mistake of calculating their Chinese zodiac sign using the calendar year they were born in–not realizing that those born early in the year are often included in the previous year, according to the Chinese zodiac.

china-lanternsI have a sneaking suspicion Chinese New Year will not be a big deal in Switzerland, but I’ll still be celebrating. A few ideas for how to celebrate your own Chinese New Year:

  • Reach out to your family members by phone or email, especially your elders;
  • Wear red for good luck (I painted my nails this color);
  • Make this recipe for homemade fried rice (surprisingly easy!);
  • Give small gifts of money or chocolate gold coins to children in your life; and
  • Release a sky lantern with your wishes for the new year.

Don’t forget to say “Kung hei fat choy!”


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