Chinese New Year in 2024 will fall on Saturday 10 February and is the start of the year of the Dragon.
The date for these annual celebrations, also referred to as the Lunar New Year, is decided by the Chinese Lunar Calendar. Chinese New Year’s Day falls on the first new moon of the year.
Chinese New Year traditionally runs for 16 days, starting on Chinese New Year's Eve and running through to the Lantern Festival held on the next full moon.
The origins of the Chinese New Year are steeped in legend, of which there are many. One legend is that thousands of years ago a monster named Nian (“Year”) would attack villagers at the beginning of each new year. The monster was afraid of loud noises, bright lights, and the colour red, so those things were used to chase the beast away. Celebrations to usher out the old year and bring forth the luck and prosperity of the new one, therefore, often include fireworks, red clothes, and decorations. Young people are given money in colourful red envelopes, while it is generally a time to feast, visit family members and honour relatives who have died.
Chinese New Year’s Eve dinner is a chance for family to gather together and is the most important dinner for the year and thus food plays a crucial role.
China is a vast country, and the Chinese people are spread across the world, so the food customs and favourite dishes vary across different regions. For instance, in Hong Kong, people eat vegetarian food on the first day of the New Year. Vegetables (菜) in Cantonese sounds like
‘wealth’ (财 cai), so eating vegetables symbolises a clean beginning of new money for the year to come.
Amongst the many delicacies, most families would have a fish dish for the banquet because the character ‘fish‘ (鱼）reads exactly the same as the character ‘surplus’ (余). Having a fish dish for the Year End dinner symbolises ‘Nian Nian You Yu’ (年年有余 surplus of everything every year).
Wilson Gou, head manager of Noodle Head in New Plymouth, says, “During the Chinese New Year period, we prepare a wide variety of dishes, with a special focus on dumplings. Eating dumplings [or ‘jiaozi’ in Mandarin] during Chinese New Year is deeply rooted in Chinese culture and is a cultural tradition that holds various symbolic meanings, such as wealth and prosperity, family unity, renewal and reunion and more.”
Wilson says while they are open during Chinese New Year, the most important part of the New Year celebrations is Nian Ye Fan (Chinese New Year Eve dinner). This, Wilson says, is “where family members gather around a big table for a festive New Year's Eve dinner. Therefore, after we close, we will also be celebrating Nian Ye Fan with our staff to honour this beautiful tradition together with food such as dumplings, fish and so on.
“My favourite part of the Chinese New Year is the Nian Ye Fan,” admits Wilson. “After a busy year, it's a heartwarming feeling to relax and be with family. As New Year’s Eve approaches, we gather with loved ones for a delicious feast, enjoying the traditional flavours that bring back fond memories. It's a time of togetherness and excitement, celebrating the start of a new year with our dear family members.”
Shuping Chen from Dragons in Wellington says, “My favourite part of Chinese New Year celebrations includes the joyous atmosphere, the traditional food, and the opportunity to spend quality time with family and loved ones. The exchange of red envelopes with money is also a cherished tradition.”
Dragons is also open over the festivities, and Shuping says, “Celebrating Chinese New Year in a restaurant often involves special menus with traditional Chinese New Year dishes, decorations like Spring Festival Couplets and red envelopes.” The Dragons team even organise a lion dance performance during Yumcha. And like the Noodle Head team, Dragons also take the opportunity to celebrate as a team. “We will all gather at the restaurant with the staff to have dinner,” Shuping explains. And to carry on those traditions staff are all given a red envelope with a bonus to wish everyone a good year ahead.
Steeped in symbolism, Shuping says, “Food plays an important role in conveying wishes for prosperity, longevity, and good fortune during the Chinese New Year celebrations.”
Here are a few examples:
Oranges and tangerines: These fruits symbolise luck and wealth due to their resemblance to gold. The Chinese words for orange and tangerine sound similar to the words for luck and wealth.
Pomelo: The large citrus fruit represents abundance and prosperity. It’s often gifted to wish for a bountiful year ahead.
Lettuce: The Cantonese word for lettuce sounds like ‘rising fortune’ (Fa发) making it a popular choice for celebrating the New Year.
Long beans: These beans symbolise longevity and are often prepared as a wish for a long and healthy life.
Bamboo shoots: Representing growth and development, bamboo shoots are believed to bring progress and advancement in various aspects of life.
Mushrooms: Certain mushrooms, like shiitake, symbolise longevity and fulfillment. They're often included in dishes to wish for a long life.
Nian Gao (Chinese New Year Cake): While not a vegetable or fruit, this sticky rice cake is an essential New Year's dish. Its name sounds like ‘year high’, signifying the hope for achieving new heights in the coming year.