15 Celebration-Worthy Facts About Chinese New Year

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Happy Chinese New Year! Also known as the Spring Festival, this upcoming holiday is packed full of traditions and symbolism. Here’s everything you need to know about the shindig.

1. The Chinese New Year doesn’t always fall on the same date.

China adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1912, but this holiday is based on the ancient Chinese, or lunar, calendar. Chinese New Year falls on the second new moon after winter solstice (somewhere between January 21st and February 19th). This year, Chinese New Year is February 19.

2. The New Year is China’s most important holiday.

It’s also China’s longest: The holiday is observed for 15 days. Technically, only the first three days are a statutory holiday, but most Chinese citizens will have the time from New Year’s Eve to the sixth day off from work.

3. San Francisco holds the largest Chinese New Year celebration outside of China.

The California gold rush of 1849 brought many people to the West Coast, including Chinese immigrants who worked on the railroads. Eager to share their culture with other Californians, these immigrants adopted the American tradition of a parade to celebrate their New Year. Since then, the event has become extremely popular—over a million people are expected to attend the parade this year.

4. The Chinese have celebrated the New Year for thousands of years.

The first Chinese New Year was celebrated during ancient times. According to mythology, a monster called Nian would appear at the end of each winter to ravage China and kill its people. The townsfolk used bright lights, loud noises, and the color red to scare the predator away. That’s why you see so many red lanterns and firework displays during the holiday. The Chinese invented fireworks in the 12th century, making them the first to use the explosives in a New Year’s celebration.

5. One sixth of the world’s population celebrates Chinese New Year.

The holiday isn’t just for the citizens of China. Countries with large Chinese populations like Taiwan and Singapore celebrate as well.

6. All cleaning is done before the celebration.

People participating in the Chinese New Year festivities will rigorously clean their homes on the 20th day of the 12th lunar month in preparation. This tidying up is symbolic of starting over fresh in the New Year. Some believe that the cleaning will sweep away the evil spirits or bad luck associated with the previous year. During the first day of the New Year, cleaning the house or washing one’s hair is discouraged because it could wash away good luck.

7. The dragon dance is believed to ward off evil spirits.

Unlike their Western cousins, Chinese dragons are friendly creatures associated with good luck, power, wisdom, and rain clouds. The dragon dance is a ceremony performed to scare off evil spirits and bad luck. Long dragons are constructed from wood, fabric, paper, or plastic and are controlled by poles connected to their bottoms; the longer the creation, the luckier it is believed to be. Pole bearers manipulate the dragon to make it appear to dance to the beat of a drum. It’s harder than it looks! The performers must be perfectly synchronized or the whole movement will be thrown off.

8. There are 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac.

According to ancient folklore, the order of the zodiacs was determined by a race orchestrated by the Jade Emperor in which the animals had to cross a river to get to the finish line. The rat finished first because it rode on the naïve ox’s back (the ox came in second). A powerful swimmer, the tiger came in third. The rabbit jumped on rocks to avoid the water. The story goes on like this until we reach the pig, which finished in last place because it took a nap.

Some legends mention a thirteenth animal: the cat. According to one legend, the cat also rode on the ox’s back, but was pushed off by the rat and drowned. Another story suggests that the rat gave the cat the wrong date and the feline missed the race entirely. Both stories result in explaining why cats are always chasing rats.

9. During Chinese New Year, keep your black clothes in your closet.

Color symbolism is an important part of the festivities. Black represents death, so it’s wise to steer clear of that color. Instead, wear bright colors like red, which symbolizes good fortune.

10. Children sleep with money under their pillows.

Elders will award youngsters with red envelopes filled with money in an effort to bring more happiness and good fortune. The contents are less important than the envelope itself, as the act of giving symbolizes good luck. Some children will sleep on their envelopes for seven days before opening to make their loot even luckier, and parents will also slip envelopes under their children’s pillows while they sleep, not unlike the tooth fairy.

11. Everyone turns one year older.

Renri, the seventh day of celebration, is considered the day that all human beings were created. As a result, everyone turns one year older on this day—sort of like a national birthday.

12. Fu signs are sometimes placed upside down.

Red diamond-shaped signs depicting the fu character are commonly placed on or above doors during Chinese New year. The symbol signifies good luck, so by placing it upside down, the residents allow the luck to pour down into the household.

13. On the last day of the celebration, everyone releases lanterns into the sky.

Elaborate paper lanterns that come in many different shapes and sizes are released on Chap Goh Mei (or the Lantern Festival), the fifteenth day of the New Year. Some see this practice as symbolically letting go of the old self to become a new person. Many will write riddles on their lanterns for others to try to solve.

14. Chap Goh Mei is like Valentine’s Day.

The final day of Chinese New Year is also considered a day ripe for love. Many single women will write their phone numbers on mandarin oranges before tossing them into the river. Men waiting downstream will collect the fruits and eat them. The sweetest one means the couple will have the best luck together.

15. 2015 is the year of the goat.

If you were born in 1919, 1931, 1943, 1967, 1979, 1991, or 2003, this is your year! As a “goat,” your lucky colors are brown, red, and purple. Your supposed best months are August and November, and your lucky flowers are primroses and carnations. People with this zodiac are supposed to be kind, amicable, and stable.

The Most Popular Christmas Movie in Each State

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dusanpetkovic/iStock via Getty Images

Everyone has a favorite classic holiday movie, from 1946’s It’s a Wonderful Life to 1983’s A Christmas Story to 1988’s Die Hard, which may or may not fit the criteria for a festive film depending on who you ask. Home advice website House Method decided to see if those favorites varied by state. To find out, the site polled 4580 people and compiled the results into handy infographics.

An infographic breaking down favorite holiday movies by state is pictured
House Method

As you can see, A Christmas Story dominates the country, with 24 states and a total of 12.8 percent of respondents naming it their favorite. The 2003 Will Ferrell comedy Elf came in second, with 11 states and 11.2 percent of the vote. Rounding out the top five—when looking at the overall percentage—are 1990’s Home Alone and It’s a Wonderful Life, with a dark horse—1993’s The Nightmare Before Christmas—scoring 6.3 percent of voting and winning over Tennessee. Nebraska was an outlier, naming 1989’s National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation their favorite.

Here’s how it breaks down by count according to state:

An infographic breaking down favorite holiday movies by state is pictured
House Method

By percentage is where animated classics like 1964’s Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and 1965’s A Charlie Brown Christmas rank:

An infographic breaking down favorite holiday movies by percentage of votes is pictured
House Method

Kansas and Vermont selected Die Hard, an often-contentious choice. (The film is set during Christmas in Los Angeles, with Bruce Willis’s everyman cop forced to battle terrorists in Nakatomi Plaza during a holiday party.) House Method decided to throw in a bonus question: Does the film qualify as a Christmas movie? The survey says no, with nearly 60 percent declaring it ineligible for holiday status. Sorry, Bruce.

An infographic depicting survey results about 'Die Hard' being a Christmas movie is pictured
House Method

[h/t House Method]

The Fascinating History Behind Why Jewish Families Eat Chinese Food on Christmas

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iStock

For Jewish New Yorkers, scoring a seat at one of veteran restaurateur Ed Schoenfeld’s Chinese eateries on Christmas Day could be compared to a holiday miracle. “I think on that day we do more business than many restaurants do in three months,” Schoenfeld tells Mental Floss. “We serve all day long, we stay open all day long.”

Schoenfeld is the Jewish owner-operator of RedFarm, an Asian-fusion dim sum restaurant with two locations in New York (plus one in London), and Decoy, a West Village shrine to traditional Peking duck. While his expertise lies in Far Eastern cuisine, Schoenfeld grew up in Brooklyn and learned to cook from his Eastern European grandmother. And just like his customers, Schoenfeld and his family sometimes craved Chinese food on Christmas, eschewing homemade fare for heaping plates of chow mein and egg foo yung. The future restaurateur's grandmother kept a kosher kitchen, but outside the home all dietary laws flew out the window with the single spin of a Lazy Susan. Suddenly, egg rolls with pork were fair game, transfigured into permissible delicacies through hunger and willful ignorance.

As Gentiles feast on turkey and roast beef during the Yuletide season, why do many Jews opt for chop suey? For starters, it's convenient: Chinese restaurants are open on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. But as historians and culinary experts tell Mental Floss, other ingredients play a part in this delicious story.

Jews developed their love for all things steamed, stir-fried, and soy-sauced after leaving the Old Country. Between the mid-1800s and the 1930s, waves of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, Germany, and Greece began settling in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a gritty, inexpensive neighborhood teeming with tenements, docks, and factories—and filled with synagogues and kosher butcher shops. “You started here, and then moved on," Sarah Lohman, author of Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine, says.

While Jewish immigrants found community on the Lower East Side, "there was a lot of discrimination against Jews at the turn of the century,” Lohman adds. "They were often criticized not only for not dressing like Americans and not speaking the language, but also for not converting to an 'American' religion."

Right next door to the burgeoning Jewish community on the Lower East Side was the city's nascent Chinatown. Many Chinese immigrants had initially come to the U.S. to work on the Transcontinental Railroad. After its completion in 1869, these laborers faced violence and discrimination in the western states. They came to New York City seeking new business opportunities, and some opened restaurants.

By and large, Chinese restaurateurs didn’t discriminate against Jewish customers. Joshua Eli Plaut writes in his book A Kosher Christmas: 'Tis the Season to be Jewish that the Chinese, as non-Christians, didn't perceive any difference between Anglo-Saxon New Yorkers and Jewish immigrants; they accepted all non-Chinese customers with open arms.

Jewish customers embraced Chinese food in return. The restaurants were conveniently located and inexpensive, yet were also urbane in their eyes. Jews saw dining out as an American custom that they wanted to try, largely because they sought upward mobility among other Americans. According to Yong Chen, a history professor and author of Chop Suey, USA: The Story of Chinese Food in America, "[Diners] were attracted to Chinese food because, in their mind, it represented American cosmopolitanism and middle class status." And they weren't deterred by the fact that food in Chinese restaurants wasn't kosher. But they could easily pretend it was.

Dairy wasn’t a big part of Chinese meals, so Jewish diners didn’t have to worry about mixing meat and milk (a no-no in kosher diets). And non-kosher ingredients like pork or seafood were often finely chopped, drowned in sauces, or mixed with other ingredients, like rice. These elements were well disguised enough that they could pass for more permissible forms of meat. “You could kind of willfully ignore that there might be pork in there," Lohman says. "It’s like a vegetarian eating a soup that has chicken stock. If you’re a little flexible about your Judaism, you would just ‘not notice’ the pork in your fried rice.”

Chinese food was exotic and new, filled with surprising flavors, ingredients, and textures [PDF]. But for some Eastern European Jews, it also had familiar elements. Both Eastern European and Chinese cuisines shared an affinity for sweet and sour flavors and egg-based dishes. "[Chinese restaurants] had these pancakes, which were like blintzes,” says Joan Nathan, author of King Solomon's Table: A Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World, and the wontons resembled kreplach (both are meat-filled soup dumplings).

The fact that the Chinese and Jews were America’s two largest non-Christian immigrant populations brought them together, Jennifer 8. Lee, author of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food, tells Mental Floss. Unlike, say, Italian restaurants, Chinese restaurants were open on Sundays and on Christian holidays. They also lacked religious imagery, which may have made them appear more welcoming for Jews.

Combined, these factors caused the number of Chinese restaurants in urban East Coast cities to skyrocket during the early 20th century. Jews soon accounted for 60 percent of the white clientele in New York City's and Philadelphia’s Chinese restaurants, Chen writes, and Chinese restaurants would often go out of their way to cater to these clients. The eateries delivered their food to Jewish neighborhoods and to individual customers.

Yet an unwavering affection for Chinese food wasn't shared by all Jews. In an example cited by Chen and Lee, a reporter for Der Tog (The Day), a Yiddish daily newspaper in New York City, noted in 1928 that Jewish diners were in danger of drowning their culinary roots in soy sauce. To take back their taste buds, Jewish-Americans should hoist protest signs reading “Down with chop suey! Long live gefilte fish!” the journalist joked.

But Jewish cookbooks had already begun including Americanized dishes like chop suey and egg foo yung, which Chinese chefs had specially created to appeal to homegrown appetites. And as Lower East Side Jews moved to different neighborhoods, boroughs, and suburbs, Chinese restaurants followed them.

By the mid-20th century, Nathan says, Chinese restaurants had become de facto social clubs in Jewish communities. Familiar faces were always present, children were always welcome, and eating with your hands wasn’t just encouraged—it was required. Everyone left filled with food and gossip, whether it was Christmas or an ordinary Sunday evening.

Thanks to immigration patterns, nostalgia, and convenient hours of operation, this culinary custom has stuck around. “Jewish guests want to go out and eat Chinese food on Christmas,” Schoenfeld, the Manhattan restaurateur, says. “It’s become a tradition, and it’s extraordinary how it’s really grown.”

This story originally ran in 2017.

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