These are the essentials when it comes to decorating your house for the Lunar New Year. But, what are the reasons these items are considered lucky? Read on!
An item commonly used to herald in the New Year is the chunlian (Chinese New Year couplets) – a pair of auspicious phrases written calligraphy-style on two red vertical banners. The couplets typically bear words such as xi, shun, chun or cai, which mean “spreading joy”, “paving a smooth path to success”, “welcoming spring” and “attracting wealth”, respectively. These are hung up on each side of a door frame.
Often, the chunlian will be accompanied by the Chinese character fu (a blessing meaning “good luck” or “fortune”), which will be pasted upside down because the Mandarin word for being upside down, dao, sounds similar to the word for “arrive”, which is a nod to the arrival of fortune to that household.
People visiting their friends’ and relatives’ homes are often offered sweet treats or savoury nibbles from an Eight Treasures Box, or ba bao he. Also known as a Tray of Togetherness, it is a snack platter shaped like a circle or an octagon with eight compartments filled with food items that carry their own symbolism.
Traditional food items placed inside these trays can be divided into sweet ones, such as candied winter melon and red dates, and savoury ones such as nuts and seeds. The sweet snacks symbolise hopes for a sweet year ahead, while the nuts and seeds denote fertility and allude to a desire for many descendants.
Such a box contains eight compartments because the pronunciation of eight in Mandarin and Cantonese sounds like the word for prosperity. Many people are now giving the snack tray an update by filling it with treats such as chocolate coins, nougat and less common nuts such as macadamia nuts or cashew nuts roasted in sea salt.
Mandarin oranges are another Chinese New Year staple not only because their sweetness points to a sweet year ahead, but also because of their auspicious name. In Cantonese, Mandarin oranges are known as kam, which also means gold in the same dialect, while in Mandarin, they are called juzi, which sounds like ji (luck).
Their cheery colour is also a hue close to gold. In addition, Mandarin oranges with their leaves intact point to longevity. The citrus fruits are therefore placed in bowls around the house during Chinese New Year. But they are never placed in fours because four in Mandarin is si, which sounds like death.
When visiting family and friends during Chinese New Year, Mandarin oranges are exchanged in pairs with the host to symbolise the spreading of good luck.
Legend has it that in ancient times, a mythical beast called Nian appeared on Chinese New Year’s Eve to terrorise villagers. But the beast was fearful of the colour red, loud noises and light, so the villagers decided to scare it away by hanging red lanterns outside their homes and setting off firecrackers to create a din. The monster was never seen again.
From then on, it became the custom to deck homes with red decorations, set off firecrackers and leave the lights on all night while awaiting the New Year to arrive. So celebrating Chinese New Year became known as guo nian, or literally, “the passing of the Nian”.
Legend aside, setting off firecrackers is also done for good luck. This is because when they explode, the ground will be covered with a layer of red firecracker wrappers, representing the saying man tang hong, or “success in everything you do”.
Although such explosives were banned in Singapore in 1972, you can still decorate your house with fake ones for the sake of symbolism. If you are creative, try making some from rolled-up red packets. Or simply buy ornamental types, including those with flickering lights and crackling noises that simulate the sound of real firecrackers going off.
A Chinese New Year without pineapple tarts would be unthinkable, but these yummy treats have a deeper meaning besides just being tasty nibbles. The significance of the tarts stem from the fact that pineapples are deemed lucky objects, because in Hokkien, pineapples are known as ong lai, which sounds like “prosperity has come”.
Therefore, eating pineapples, and even displaying them around the house, represents good luck and wealth. The actual fruit — adorned with red ribbons — is also commonly used as an ornament, as are pineapple-shaped lanterns.
First published in The Sunday Times / Additional Reporting: Debby Kwong, last updated January 2019
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