You’ve been invited to a Chinese New Year celebration. Now what?

Just a few days ago if you told me Chinese New Year was quickly approaching, I wouldn’t have given it a second thought.  We haven’t been to China or been exposed to Chinese culture in great depth (though not for lack of desire).  I particularly didn’t understand the significance of this holiday in Chinese culture; that was, until we were invited to a Chinese New Year celebration.  I quickly skimmed through my mental knowledge of Chinese customs, which took about five seconds.  Then I decided to write my friend Joy Felix.  Joy has spent a decade in Asia and just recently moved back to the United States.  I shot her an email and asked her advice.  Most importantly, I wanted to know what food we should take to the potluck.  Her expert answer I thought deserved a wider audience.  Today she shares the essentials on the Chinese New Year for cultural beginners. 

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Chinese New Year – also called “Spring Festival” – is the most important holiday in China. It starts off with parades and fireworks, continues with various foods and parties, and ends with the mysterious and beautiful red lantern festival at the end of the week. It is the first week on the Chinese calendar.

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This year is the year of the horse. The years are determined from a Chinese legend about a race between twelve animals. The twelve animals race each other across a river and their order of finishing is the order of the years. Certain years are considered especially good to get married or have kids in. Each year is said to have “personality” based on Chinese mythology. If you go to a Spring Festival party, you will likely be given memorabilia commemorating that year. The napkins, table cloths, etc. will have that year’s animal on them. Papercut artwork of Chinese characters and the animal of the year is often on the walls.

The decor is usually red. Red is the color of happiness in China and is used for weddings and special occasions. If you a invited to a Spring Festival party, the customary color (but not a requirement) is red. People give children a “Hong Bao”- a red envelope with that years’ animal on it – that has money inside. The children are always excited to get their red envelopes!

Chinese hospitality is world renown. They love to give and receive gifts, and Spring Festival is a very special time of year. So what is an appropriate gift for a westerner to bring to the party?

Usually for a non-Chinese, sticking to fruit, dessert and drink is the safest way to go.

In China, presentation is part of the gift, so whatever it is, make it look nice  there are classes on fruit arrangement and presentation – tropical fruit especially – citrusy with bananas oranges and mangos is a favorite. A fruit basket that is well organized and wrapped in red paper is a good gift.

A well chosen wine that would go well with dessert or fruit is much appreciated. While tea is a favorite, as a westerner, I always opted for coffee, knowing that I could not match my host’s exquisite taste in tea. Often, I tried to get a local specialty blend from my hometown in Texas. When Chinese students went home and then returned to school, they often brought the local specialties of teas and sweets for the whole class to enjoy.

Desserts – in China, the taste and presentation is more important than sugar. I usually cut the sugar down by about a third from American standard. If its overly sugary, they say the taste gets ruined. It was good to opt for a dessert with flavor – chocolate, vanilla, fruit, nuts, and spices are all good options. Be sure it is arranged beautifully and packaged in something red. Creativity is greatly appreciated! But don’t worry too much either, they don’t expect you to be Chinese, and are good at overlooking a multitude of American faux pas. The efforts that you make will be greatly appreciated.

One last piece of advice – pace yourself – Chinese dinners are marathons – they will put food on your plate and tell you to keep eating all night long (unless they have been warned that this is impolite in America). In China, part of being a gracious hostess is to have the guests stuffed by the time they leave, so if you can, try and graze slowly.

Cleaning up the morning after.
Cleaning up the morning after.

All photos courtesy of Joy Felix.

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Joy has taught TESL for ten years, in China, Cambodia, Thailand, Alaska, Mongolia and Japan. She wrote a College level Sophomore curriculum for Chinese English majors, and a grad level curriculum for Mongolian English teachers. Joy is a second generation TCK who speaks Spanish and Mandarin.   She loves biking and trying new foods. She is happily married to Anthony and has a delightful little boy she loves traveling with.  Joy blogs regularly at Between Worlds.

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2 thoughts on “You’ve been invited to a Chinese New Year celebration. Now what?

  1. Thank you so much for the information on Chinese New Year, my husband and I have been invited to this occasion on Thursday and so I have found your blog and will do something appropriate for this event. I lived in Bangkok, Thailand for three years and certainly enjoyed living in that part of the world, so many interesting and different customs. I am most pleased to find your info. Thank you Joy!

    1. You’re very welcome! I’m indebted to my friend at Between Worlds blog for sharing her insight on this cultural event. Perhaps I should follow up this post on our experience last year after heeding my friend’s instructions. We had a wonderful time and I’m sure you will too!

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