Celebrating Chinese New Year: A Family Affair


“What was your favorite memory of Chinese New Year when you were growing up?” I asked my husband, trying to extrapolate details to recreate for our children.

“I knew I was going to eat good food and get money,” he replied matter-of-factly. I should have expected that.

I am not Chinese, but my husband’s family is, so I have been privy to the yearly tradition since my initiation into the family six(ish) years ago. I knew there was a family meal and the traditional giving of red envelopes. After the birth of our children, I felt drawn to learn more about this significant, cultural holiday.

Image from Chinese New Year that has illuminated red lanterns hanging about a market place with Chinese characters painted on them

What Is Chinese New Year?

Chinese New Year celebrates the beginning of a new year in the traditional Chinese calendar. While it’s commonly referred to as the Lunar New Year (since timing is based on the phases of the moon), other cultures in Asia have their own calendars that also run off the lunar cycle.

The full New Year festival lasts 15 days. Most families will use this time to see relatives for the holiday. In fact, so many people travel to see their families that Chinese New Year is considered the largest annual human migration in the world.

In addition, one of twelve zodiac animals is associated with each year. Some people use this to determine the best time for life events like getting married or having a baby, since personality traits are assigned to the different animals. This year, we’ll celebrate the Year of the Rat starting January 25th.

Just so you know, I’m a dragon married to a rooster and we have a monkey and a dog. Make of that what you will.

Chinese New Year Traditions

Seeing as China is a large nation with a great deal of regional variation, the same is true when it comes to New Year traditions. While it depends on where you are, some traditions include:

  • Cleaning your house before the start of the new year
  • Getting a haircut before the new year
  • Purchasing new clothes for the coming year

Since family reunions are the driving force behind the holiday, family meals play a large role. Certain foods are usually present during the New Year Festival including noodles, steam buns, dumplings, fried pastries, and sticky rice cakes, among others.

Celebrations can include a Lion Dance or Dragon Dance, which symbolize the chasing away of evil spirits and is considered to provide good luck in the new year. Strings of firecrackers are lit and their loud noises are also used to scare away any bad spirits.

Red lanterns are hung, some with riddles written on them. Lanterns have held various meanings over time, but many today like to include wishes. Red and gold are recurring colors throughout Chinese culture, but especially during Chinese New Year. Paper cutouts, often called paper flowers, decorate windows and older relatives give unmarried children Red Pockets.

Greetings for Chinese New Year vary depending on the dialect used in a specific region. The mdost common expression is in Mandarian: 新年快乐 (xīn nián kuài lè) and translates to Happy New Year.

My husband’s family is from Hong Kong and we (and I’m being VERY generous with the “we” here because I only know a few sayings) speak Cantonese. We say 恭喜发财 which in English sounds similar to “Gong Hey Fat Choy” and wishes you prosperity in the New Year.

On January 25th, we’ll dress the kids in their traditional clothing, head over to my in-laws, and partake in a wonderful family meal together, wishing each other blessings for the new year.


Chinese New Year Celebrations Around Portland

Jan 25th: Lunar New Year Dragon Dance Parade and Celebration (NW Davis St)

Jan 25th: Chinese New Year Cultural Fair (Oregon Convention Center)

Jan 25th-Feb 9th: Chinese New Year (Lan Su Chinese Garden)

Jan 25th: Lunar New Year Celebration (Portland Children’s Museum)

Feb 1st: Lunar New Year Celebration (Washington Square)

Feb 6th-Feb 9th: Chinese New Year Lantern Viewing (Lan Su Chinese Garden)

Do you have a tradition for Chinese New Year? Is there an event we should know about? Let us know in the comments!



  1. It sounds like such a wonderful celebration unlike anything we have here in the US! It would be amazing to experience it.

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