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Photo by Marie Gallo  ·    Posted March 30, 2005

Heights Celebrates
Chinese New Year 2005

Story by Justin Watrel

On Saturday, February 19th, the Friends of the Hasbrouck Heights Library held a Chinese New Year Dim Sum Lunch.

The event was held at the New China Chef in Rutherford, New Jersey to a wonderful turnout.

Over a hundred patrons of the library enjoyed assorted Dim Sum (little appetizers), which included Spring Rolls, Bow Buns, Shrimp Dumplings, Pork Dumplings and Roast Pork Buns that were made especially for the event. Five different dishes that included General Tao's Chicken, Beef with Flat Noodles, and House Fried Rice were presented buffet style. For dessert, traditional Egg Custards and Fortune cookies with Orange slices were served.

It gave many patrons a chance to try items that most people do not see outside of traditional Dim Sum lunches in New York’s Chinatown. The event was organized by Friends President Susanne Kepsel, Library Director Michele Reutty and Assistant Library Director Mimi Hui.

After a delicious lunch with wonderful conversation, the group was treated to a speech by Mimi Hui. Ms. Hui, who was applauded by the group as the winner of the New York Times Librarian of the Year, spoke about the history of the Chinese New Year and how she celebrated it growing up. Ms. Hui shared some of her stories of her family life as an American raised in a traditional Chinese household in Passaic, New Jersey. She explained how her family adapted to their new country and blended the best of both worlds to make the celebration special.

The Chinese New Year starts with the New Moon on the first day of the New Year and ends on the full moon 15 days later. The 15th day of the New Year is called the Lantern Festival, which is celebrated at night with lantern displays and children carrying lanterns in a parade.

The Chinese calendar is based on a combination of the lunar and solar movements. The lunar cycle is about 29.5 days. In order to "catch up" with the solar calendar the Chinese insert an extra month once every few years (seven years out of a 19 year cycle). This is the same as adding an extra day on leap years. This is why, according to the solar calendar, the Chinese New Year falls on a different date each year. New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day are celebrated as a family affair, a time of reunion and thanksgiving.

The celebration was traditionally highlighted with a religious ceremony given in honor of Heaven and Earth, the gods of the household and family ancestors.

On New Year’s Day, the Chinese family will eat a vegetarian dish called jai. Although the various ingredients in jai are root vegetables or fibrous vegetables, many attribute various superstitious aspects to them.

Foods include a whole fish, to represent togetherness and abundance and a chicken for prosperity. The chicken must be presented with a head, tail and feet to symbolize completeness. Noodles should be uncut, as they represent long life.

In South China, the favorite and most typical dishes were nian gao, sweet steamed glutinous rice pudding and zong zi, glutinous rice wrapped up in reed leaves.

In the north, steamed-wheat bread (man tou) and small meat dumplings are the preferred food. The tremendous amount of food prepared at this time was meant to symbolize abundance and wealth for the household.###

The History of Chinese New Year

Prior to New Year’s Day, Chinese families decorate their living rooms with vases of pretty flowers, platters of oranges and tangerines and a candy tray with eight varieties of dried sweet fruit. On walls and doors are poetic couplets, happy wishes written on red paper.

Every traditional Chinese household should have live blooming plants to symbolize rebirth and new growth. Flowers are believed to be symbolic of wealth and high positions in one’s career. Lucky is the home with a plant that blooms on New Year’s Day, for that foretells a year of prosperity.

The Chinese firmly believe that without flowers, there would be no formation of any fruits. Therefore, it is of the utmost importance to have flowers and floral decorations. Etiquette also dictates that you must bring a bag of oranges and tangerines and enclose a lai see when visiting family or friends anytime during the two-week long Chinese New Year celebration. Tangerines with leaves intact assure that one’s relationship with the other remains secure.

The candy tray arranged in either a circle or octagon is called "The Tray of Togetherness" and has a dazzling array of candy to start the New Year sweetly. After taking several pieces of candy from the tray, adults place a red envelope (lai see) on the center compartment of the tray. Each item represents some kind of good fortune.

During the New Year, the entire house should be cleaned before New Year’s Day. On New Year’s Eve, all brooms, brushes, dusters, dust pans and other cleaning equipment are put away. Sweeping or dusting should not be done on New Year’s Day for fear that good fortune will be swept away. After New Year’s Day, the floors may be swept. Beginning at the door, the dust and rubbish are swept to the middle of the parlor, then placed in the corners and not taken or thrown out until the fifth day.

At no time should the rubbish in the corners be trampled upon. In sweeping, there is a superstition that if you sweep the dirt out over the threshold, you will sweep one of the family away. To sweep the dust and dirt out of your house by the front entrance is to sweep away the good fortune of the family; it must always be swept inwards and then carried out, then no harm will follow. All dirt and rubbish must be taken out the back door.

Shooting off firecrackers on New Year’s Eve is the Chinese way of sending out the old year and welcoming in the New Year. On the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, every door in the house and even windows, have to be open to allow the old year to got out. All debts have to paid by this time. Nothing should be lent on this day, as anyone who does so will be lending all the year. Everyone should refrain from using foul language and bad or unlucky words. Negative terms and the word "four", which sounds like the word for death, are not to be uttered. Death and dying are never mentioned and ghost stories are totally taboo. If you cry on New Year’s Day, you will cry all through the year. Therefore, children are tolerated and are not spanked, even though they are mischievous.

On New Year’s Day, we are not supposed to wash our hair because it would mean we would have washed away good luck for the New Year. Red clothing is preferred during this festive occasion. Red is considered a bright, happy color, sure to bring the wearer a sunny and bright future. Children and unmarried friends, as well as close relatives are given lai see, little red envelopes with crisp one dollar bills inserted, for good fortune.

While many Chinese people today may not believe in these do’s and don’ts, these traditions and customs are kept because most families realize that it is these very traditions, whether believed or not, that provide continuity with the past and provide the family with an identity. ###

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