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Mythical Beasts and Lucky Dishes: Lunar New Year Traditions, Explained

UMD Expert on D.C.-area Celebrations Breaks Down Chinese Customs

By Karen Shih ’09

dragon from the Chinese Youth Club Lion Dance Troupe performs

Lion dancers perform in Washington, D.C.'s Chinatown in January 2023. Lunar New Year, which begins Saturday, is an opportunity for “Asian American communities across the nation declare proudly that our story is also an American story, and our heritage is also a part of the American heritage,” said American studies doctoral candidate Xinqian “Allison” Qiu.

Photo by Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post via Getty Images

This weekend, the bang-bang-bang and billowing smoke of firecrackers, undulating red and gold dragons, and mouthwatering aromas of steamed and fried delights signal the start of Lunar New Year for two billion people.

The holiday, also known as Chinese New Year, is based on a lunar and solar cycle calendar so it changes dates annually, but usually falls from late January to mid-February. Comparable to Thanksgiving and Christmas combined, it’s considered the most important festival in more than 10 countries, including China, Korea, Vietnam: a time to gather with family and eat, eat, eat.

mother and daughter at Lunar New Year exhibit at Kennedy Center
Qiu and her daughter, Claire, at a Kennedy Center Lunar New Year celebration for the year of the pig in 2019. (Photo courtesy of Qiu)

While the biggest festivities take place across a broad swath of East and Southeast Asia, immigrants throughout the U.S. celebrate as well. American studies doctoral candidate Xinqian “Allison” Qiu has been studying Chinese American Lunar New Year observances in the D.C. metropolitan area since 2018. Events range from Smithsonian and Kennedy Center performances co-sponsored by Asian embassies or cultural organizations to the D.C. Chinatown Parade, as well as community talent shows and food markets in suburbs with large Asian American populations.

“While many have traditional elements like lion dance and dragon dance, they’re also trying to make their events as diverse and inclusive as possible,” said Qiu. The Chinatown parade, for example, has included Brazilian drummers and Pride performers in recent years.

Qiu hopes that by spreading awareness of Asian American holidays and customs—Lunar New Year is an official holiday only in a handful of states, not including Maryland—that these events can be a powerful way to combat anti-Asian hate that surged during COVID and decrease the structural discrimination against Asian Americans that dates back to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

“These festivals are a safe harbor for immigrants and their descendants, a way to preserve their heritage and memories,” Qiu said. “It’s also a chance to show up, stand up and speak up.”

On the eve of Lunar New Year, she explains why the ancient Chinese burned bamboo, the reason red envelopes should contain brand-new bills and how the humble chicken is actually a lucky food.

It Started With a Beast
In Chinese, nian means year—but is also the name of a mythical beast that emerges once a year to feed, especially on children. To keep it at bay, ancient villagers burned bamboo, which would crack and pop, a practice that has evolved into firecrackers.

“When I was a child, I hated it because it smelled so strong and it was loud and scary, but now I really miss it,” said Qiu, who grew up in the Fujian Province in southeast China before coming to the United States to pursue graduate education. “I take my kids to the Chinatown parade every year, because it’s the only place we can legally see and smell traditional firecrackers!”

Red, Red Everywhere
While Spanish bulls charge a red flag, the nian beast was said to run from the vivid color, so red became a lucky color in Chinese culture. During Lunar New Year, people write good-luck couplets to hang by their doors, paste paper cuttings of words like “spring” and “fortune” and images of the year’s zodiac sign—this time a dragon—in their windows, and wear new clothes.

Most importantly, they give red envelopes to children and elders, filled with brand-new bills. “In ancient China, it was coins. Now, the new money symbolizes fresh wealth coming into your home. Money that’s worn or deteriorated could have someone else’s misfortune embedded,” she said. (Some in China even send digital red envelopes via popular app WeChat.)

Dragon Year, Baby Boom
“Chinese dragons are the most noble and auspicious animals in Chinese mythology,” said Qiu. “They’re totally different from western images of scary dragons.” They’re considered the most powerful and desirable of the 12 zodiac animals, so traditionally, there’s a surge in births in the dragon year, as opposed to the weaker-sounding rabbit or mouse, for example.

While this year happens to be the year of the dragon, dragon dances are performed at every Lunar New Year celebration—often featuring 10 people to bring the venerated creature to life—to drive away evil spirits and bring blessings for the new year.

Food With Meaning
Chinese is full of homonyms (words that sound the same but have different definitions) so the foods that appear on a Lunar New Year table all have dual meanings. Chicken, which sounds like the word for “lucky,” is one of the most popular dishes across China and the diaspora. Others include fish, which sounds like “surplus,” and “means that you will have more wealth, more knowledge, more of everything in the new year,” said Qiu. In southern China, nian gao, a sweetened sticky rice concoction, sounds the same as “going higher,” which leads to elevated fortunes. In the north, where wheat is the staple crop, dumplings are a must have; shaped like gold ingots, they represent wrapping up wealth and luck.

“Hospitality is amazing during the new year,” Qiu said. “You’re eating nonstop!”

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