With Chinese New Year almost upon us and the excitement building for a long weekend full of festivities and food, I want in on this celebration. It’s seem kinda fun, and very family and food orientated, which basically has my name written all over it. Also, with the post Christmas and birthday slump well and truly upon us it’s perfect timing to throw ourselves into a part of the culture here.
We’ve been watching with fascination as decorations have gone up, swiftly replacing any sign of Christmas here, and everywhere becomes covered in gaudy red and gold roosters, lanterns and banners to remind anyone likely to forget that the new lunar year is almost here. I knew I wanted to jazz up our apartment in preparation, but I also knew that just throwing a ton of red decorations around would leave our precious small space looking at best cluttered, at worst like a tacky explosion of rejected Christmas decorations. There needed to be absolutely no tinsel-esque decorations, a nod to the traditions of Chinese New Year, but very much our own stamp on things.
(above) There are some traditions at this time of the year that are so ubiquitous with Chinese New Year that it would have been criminal to leave them out. Like hongbao, the lucky money that is given in red envelopes. This is perhaps the easiest of the traditions to adopt, as typically hongbao is only given to children, unmarried people, older people and anyone who deserves a thank you, for example cleaners and security guards at the gates of condo’s. Playing it safe, we’re just going to stick with giving hongbao to children. The money should be crisp new notes to be true to tradition (but you’d have to suffer the long queues at the bank for that), and as far as how much should be included? It’s lucky money, not pocket money… it’s just a fun gesture that adds a little excitement to the New Year’s Eve dinner table.
(right) Elsewhere on the dinner table – because a New Year’s Eve feast is something I am 100% on board with – keep it more understated with hints of red and gold. I’ve just picked out some red and gold candles, and napkins rolled with a gold beaded loop around them. I’m not one for a really crowded table with ostentatious decorations across it simply for the practicalities of having young children nearby, but also because I cannot stand it when you can’t see the person sat opposite you at dinner because there’s a flower arrangement in the way. Think more supper club than formal dinner to get the family-centric vibe that a New Year’s Eve dinner is about.
Obviously in terms of actual tableware, if you don’t own rice bowls and chopsticks just use what you have. I really don’t see any point in purchasing anything for one dinner, unless of course you have plans to use them more often, in which case go for it. But really, to stay within the realms of tradition, use a bowl for rice, and have a plate on which you can place meat, fish and vegetables. If you’re comfortable with chopsticks use them, but as the idea of this meal is a feast to see in the New Year and start as you mean to go in for the year ahead, and since everything around this celebration is very symbolic, it would be a bad omen for the year ahead if you were to struggle with chopsticks and go hungry.
Symbolism is key to all things Chinese New Year, the red that you see everywhere is because this colour symbolises life, happiness and good luck- exactly what you want at the beginning of a new year. Other superstitions to watch out for over New Year’s (and let’s be honest, everything’s worth a try in 2017) are to leave the lights on overnight and avoid any sharp tools as these may sever your good luck for the year ahead. So knives off the table! Also, and this might be my favourite, using brooms or mops is banned on the first day of the New Year as this is considered to be sweeping away your luck and wealth. So that’s a day off from domestic duties! Unfortunately the minor detail I’ve omitted is that the house should have been cleaned top to bottom in advance of the New Year to represent a fresh start. Win some, lose some.
(left) As the bringing in of the New Year is also the signifier to welcome Spring it is common to see fresh flowers and blooms brought into the home as bright and cheery decoration. Think pretty cherry blossoms in white, pink and red, and branches of pussy willow (catkins) decorated with simple red ribbons. I’ve gone with the pussy willow option as it’s so cheap to get hold of here and is super low maintenance. We’ve decorated ours with red ribbon as per tradition, and little hanging red roosters to signify the coming year. The kiddies have even started to refer to it as our “Chinese New Year tree” and offered to get the baubles and tinsel back out to decorate it. There’s a line I will go to, and cracking out the Christmas decs is too far. Even if they’re red and gold. Although I will admit that the red ribbon is leftover from Christmas present wrapping, but at the end of the day red ribbon is red ribbon, right?! If you find the red ribbon a little too much then why not add touches of red or gold to the buds with little strokes of glittery nail varnish? If I was to create a table decoration using pussy willow I would probably go down that route, but as I said earlier, I’m not into anything that either takes up precious table space that could be used for more food or inhibits free flowing conversation between my dinner guests.
Depending on whether you get fresh pussy willow or not depends on whether you will need to keep it watered, and therefore whether the soft buds will blossom into jade green shoots. If, like me, you are going for the easiest option (not so fresh), literally you can bung the branches into a tall vase and pop the brown covers off the white buds (this is a messy job and one I haven’t done yet to keep the buds as fresh as possible for the New Year). If you want to get to the jade shoots stage the vase will need water in, but if you live in Singapore you must remember to change the water every other day to keep mozzies at bay. I’m using Christmas tree logic with my pussy willow, it can have enough water that it doesn’t droop and lose buds, but I don’t actually need to keep it so nourished it grows. Maybe the kids are on to something with the Chinese New Year Tree title bestowed upon our stalks adorned with white buds and red ribbons. There’s something so delicate and simple about having the branches tied with red ribbon bows here and there and nothing else, it gives a very appropriate nod to Chinese New Year traditions without being tacky and try hard in an expat home. And, as the rest of the New Year decoration is so red and gold oriented having some blossoms in the house adds a much welcome variation with their prettiness and daintiness.
Did you enjoy reading this post? Come back tomorrow for more ideas on how to enjoy the Chinese New Year celebration with year with luck and prosperity on your side…
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Happy New Year!