Spring Festival: a chat about family, food and holiday hang-ups

Emma Leaning
At the heart of any celebration is its people. To learn what Spring Festival means to our Chinese friends, I sat down with mine to talk family, food and holiday hang-ups.
Emma Leaning
Spring Festival:  a chat about  family, food and  holiday hang-ups

From left: Friends and colleagues Tom, Amanda and Song

Chinese New Year, also known as Spring Festival, is China’s most treasured fete. The lunar calendar determines its date, and in 2021 it falls on February 12.

In celebration, communities are rouged with lanterns and the giddy exchanging of red envelopes filled with crisp banknotes. On Chinese New Year’s Eve, families gather to feast while the Spring Festival Gala entertains the nation.

But we know this.

At the heart of any celebration is its people; their memories, traditions and loved-ones. To learn what Spring Festival really means to our Chinese friends and colleagues, I sat down with mine to talk family, food and holiday hang-ups.

What do you most look forward to at Chinese New Year?

Tom: A hug with my father. We live far apart, so I seldom see him.
Song: Resting after a year’s work!
Amanda: Yes! But don’t write that because our boss will see! (All laugh.) No, for me it’s really just that bit of downtime to enjoy hobbies and take care of my well-being.

When you picture the festival, what comes to mind?

Song: Me and my mom. As a kid, being with her was like having the whole world in my hands.
Tom: A big gathering of relatives around a circular table. There’s all sorts of food, and a huge copper hotpot in the middle.
Amanda: Helping my parents prepare food on New Year’s Eve. It’s a pretty normal day, but a precious time for the family.

Are you busy with preparations?

Song: I’ve booked flights. There’s no guarantee, but I’m hopeful we can travel.
Tom: Same. I’ve bought tickets and a few gifts.
Amanda: My family don’t exchange gifts. We’ll clean the house on New Year’s Eve.
Song: (Laughs.) I’ll get someone to do it, I hate cleaning!
Amanda: I’m thinking about all the food …
Song: It’s a bit early!
Tom: Oh, but food’s important!

I’m sensing a food theme, is there a festive dish you love?

Amanda: Of course! The dumplings and sticky rice my mom makes.
Song: Fish and stewed pork.
Tom: The celery that’s grown in my hometown. It’s hollow in the middle and believed to be lucky. Eat it, and all roads will open to you! Every family has a secret recipe.
Amanda: What’s yours?
Tom: I can’t tell you.
Song: It’s celery! (All laugh.)

Is there a stress factor to the holiday?

Amanda: (Laughs.) Oh yeah! Especially when it comes to certain relatives!
Song: The worst are the ones you’re not even close to! They want to know everything! I’m like: “None of your business, stop being nosy!”
Amanda: One year, I got fed up and flew to Japan on New Year’s Eve!
Emma: You rebel!
Amanda: Yeah, my parents had already left Shanghai, so there was nothing they could do.
Tom: Sometimes, I want to go back to my hometown, but my wife wants to stay in Shanghai. There’s a lot of ... compromise! And bad traffic. (Laughs.) Oh, it does get stressful!

Christmas is commercialized, how about Spring Festival?

Tom: There’s definitely a commercial side. We spend a lot at the flower market, and the cost of red envelopes adds up.
Song: I’d say the price of anything related to the festival gets higher.
Amanda: That happens with any major holiday.
Tom: Except this year the trains have big discounts.
Amanda: What about flights?
Tom: Cheap. Because no one’s traveling!

Spring Festival:  a chat about  family, food and  holiday hang-ups

Fu (Fortune): Turning my hand to Chinese calligraphy

Speaking of which, how might travel restrictions affect things?

Amanda: It’ll be a quiet one.
Song: Yeah, I think people are feeling quite sad.
Amanda: There’s a bright side for anyone wanting a break from parts of the festival they don’t enjoy. But I feel for migrant workers, anyone away from their hometown that can’t get back.
Tom: Yes. And for me, it’d be hard not to see my father. Three years ago, he was diagnosed with cancer, so I assume every New Year is his last.

Can you share a holiday memory with us?

Tom: As a kid, I lived in the countryside. Every year we’d travel for two days to see my grandparents. We’d walk for hours through the snow to catch a ferry, and then we took a train and a long-haul bus. (Laughs.) I tell you, that’s no holiday for a 6-year-old!
Amanda: My mom and dad have four siblings each, so I’ve got a bunch of aunties, uncles and cousins. I remember us all playing with firecrackers in the snow.
Song: Pocket money.
Amanda: Oh, I forgot to say that!
Tom: How could you forget hongbao?!
Song: My mom was the smartest, most elegant person I’ve ever known. I’d save the money given to me on New Year and wait to buy her a fancy gift. I lost her four years ago, that’s when I moved to Shanghai. The holiday isn’t the same now.

How can the international community celebrate Spring Festival?

Amanda: Spend time with a Chinese family if you can.
Song: Have a go at Chinese calligraphy!
Amanda: You could learn one of our celebration songs ...?
Song: And that’s when I realize we don’t do that much during Spring Festival! (All laugh.)
Tom: Yes, many traditions are lost. Calligraphy is a good idea.
Song: If the international community wants a true Chinese New Year experience, they should help their Chinese friends prepare for the festival.
Emma: You mean, clean your house?!
Song: (Laughs.) YES!
Tom: No, not really ... You also need to prepare the food! (All laugh.)

You mentioned traditions. How relevant are they?

Amanda: I’d say more so in rural areas.
Song: Yeah, because there are bigger family reunions in the countryside.
Tom: That’s true. When I was a boy, loads of us would gather. The kids have grown up now, so there’s just a handful of us.
Amanda: It’s different for everyone, but I’d say many Shanghai families will celebrate with a big meal.
Tom: I don’t even give out pocket money anymore! (Laughs.) My daughter is 21, she’s had her last red envelope!

Summarize Chinese New Year in three words.

Tom: Change, adaption and family.
Amanda: That’s deep! I’ll say, red — because everything is at this time of year — music and family.
Song: Boredom, leisure and hope.
Emma: Why hope?
Song: Because with every new year, comes new possibilities.

Spring Festival:  a chat about  family, food and  holiday hang-ups

Wishing you a wonderful Spring Festival. For anyone that can’t be with loved-ones for the holiday, know that you’re in our thoughts. May the year of the Ox bring you everything you could hope for. “The Oyster Pail” will be back on February 20. Until then, xin nian kuai le!


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