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Chinese New Year Traditions

CNY food
Chinese New Year food

On December 31st, New Year’s celebrations are heard around the world – but that doesn’t mean January 1st is the start of the new year for everyone. From Korea to Thailand, Vientiane to Shanghai and every place in between, people across the Eastern half of the globe will soon be celebrating the beginning of a new Lunar New Year.

The New Year in China itself is celebrated with family, fireworks and food; Chinese New Year is a country-wide party featuring fun for all and a good dose of history and tradition. Spending time as a family is one of the most important aspects of Chinese New Year, and eating together symbolizes the harmony and unity that will hopefully continue into the coming year. Firecrackers may have originally been set off to scare evil spirits, and of course today they provide a beautiful way to begin the new year, and an exciting way to remember the traditions of old.

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For foreigners traveling to China to experience the New Year for themselves, as well as native residents looking forward to another year of celebration, it’s important to stop for just a moment and consider how best to stay safe and healthy during the 15 day party which is Chinese New Year.

First of all, when it come to fireworks and firecrackers, vigilance is of the utmost importance. On New Year’s Eve 2011, it was reported that nearly 6,000 fires had occurred throughout the country, including a forest fire which led to the deaths of six people. Fireworks were actually illegal in China until 2006, when the government decided to erase the 1993 ban due to huge amounts of illegal smuggling and selling. Now, over 200 Chinese cities including Beijing have more or less free reign when it comes to firecrackers, and that’s why Chinese New Year revelers should think first and foremost about safety when finding themselves in a combustive situation.

Firework use should of course be limited to areas away from houses, people, or anything likely to
catch and spread a fire. The person setting off the firework should of course have some experience, and be comfortable with the basics of how to use a fire-starter and when to move away from the burning firework. Children involved in the festivities should be firmly informed to stay away from flames and close to an adult, and should be warned not to play around with remains of fireworks they might find on the ground.

When used correctly, fireworks are of course a stunningly majestic way to ring in the New Year.
However, not everyone feels the same when it comes to fireworks’ noisier little brother – firecrackers. Equally popular in China, these noisemakers add spirit to the party, as well as the occasional migraine after 24 hours straight of bings and bangs in the street. To combat the health risks of overexposure to noise and insomnia, it’s a good idea for light sleepers to invest in a pair of earplugs and a trusty, over-the- counter pain killer. The health risks of being kept awake at night include stress, fatigue and even insanity given enough time, so it’s important to do whatever is necessary to ensure a good night’s rest during Chinese New Year.

Besides fireworks, it’s fair to say that Chinese New Year is all about the food. In China, the names of many foods are homophones for words and phrases, therefore certain dishes will be eaten on Chinese New Year because of the way they are pronounced. Oranges are eaten because their name sounds like luck, and so an orange eaten on during celebration should bring the consumer a lucky new year. As fish is a homophone for surplus or abundance, whole fish will often be served, along with beancurd symbolizing a good start to the year.

As in other countries, in China a day of celebratory eating is also a day to be cautious about digestive health. Dangers of overeating on even just one occasion include bloating, flatulence, and fluctuations in blood sugar which can lead to headaches and fatigue. As the dishes served during Chinese New Year include many varieties of vegetables and steamed rather than fried meats, it’s a good idea to eat plenty of these fresh, healthier foods before moving on to rich delicacies such as roast suckling pig. Chinese desserts tend to be less sweet than their Western counterparts, but that’s not a carte blanche to down as many deep fried sesame seed balls as you’d like. Be aware that sugary decisions during the new year will have later consequences when seated in the dentist’s chair a few months down the line.

One more area of health and safety concern during Chinese New Year has to do with tourists, and crowds. Travel is not necessarily a tradition during New Year celebration, however more and more families and young couples especially are choosing to take advantage of the New Year holiday and go abroad. What this means is more people out and about, and often walking in an aimless or disoriented fashion. In this sort of situation, it’s important to be alert to traffic and pedestrians in order to avoid an accident. It is likewise a good idea to leave more time than necessary when traveling, to avoid having to rush and potentially endanger yourself or those around you with sprints and acrobatics trying to get through the crowds and onto your scheduled train.

There is of course no reason to let concern get in the way of an amazing Chinese New Year celebration. With just a little caution and consideration, the Year of the Snake can surely be rung in with festivity, cheer, and as few firecracker mishaps as possible.

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