There is just no horse-ing around with Chinese New Year rituals.
CHILDREN have the best of times celebrating Chinese New Year ... they get to dress up in new clothes, feast on all the cookies and soft drinks they want and play with firecrackers. The highlight of it all, of course, is receiving angpows, regardless of whether they have been naughty or nice.
“When you’re a child, Chinese New Year puts you at the receiving end. It’s all about fun and playtime with the cousins and collecting angpow money. You don’t really think about why your long-lost relatives have suddenly come to visit or why you have to greet elderly strangers with well wishes; you just go with the flow,” says mother-of-three Tisha Ng, 31.
Chinese New Year comes with its own set of values and traditions. As Ng has learned, parents need to make a conscious effort to share these values and traditions with their children.
“Families aren’t as close as they used to be. Now with Facebook, we hardly ever catch up with our relatives outside the online world, even though we may be staying in the same area. I don’t want my kids to grow up not knowing who their cousins are. So, no matter how busy we are, we make it a point to bring the children back to our hometown to join in the celebrations. It may be just once a year, but it is a reunion, and there’s no better time for that than during Chinese New Year.”
Ng’s husband Lawrence Choy believes that exposing their city kids to the simpler lifestyle back in the kampung will actually help keep them grounded.
“Back in the village, the TV will be on but there’ll be no cartoons. There’ll be festive programmes but they’re more for the adults. And, so the kids will be running around being kids, just like how it used to be,” says the 31-year-old.
Thinking about the Chinese New Year from his past evokes nostalgia for Choy, who co-owns a restaurant with Ng.
“Chinese New Year doesn’t feel as festive as it used to be. There’s a lot of hype in the malls but in the home, the decoration has just gotten simpler and simpler over the years. I think people these days emphasise too much on their working life and just breeze through their days like that. My family is guilty of doing the same. Though we may no longer observe all of the same traditions, we do keep the important ones.”
The eldest of the Choy family children, aged five, is being trained to master the art of greeting and paying respects to the elderly, which, in essence, is something that should be observed beyond the festive season.
“Having my son wish his grandmas and grandpas ‘Happy New Year’ and ‘the best of health’ is a simple thing, but it makes the older generation so happy to be greeted that way. Sometimes, it’s really the little things that count,” Choy opines.
Blessings in abundance
When it comes to angpows, there is an unspoken rule that one should give according to their own means. Getting children to see the red packet for what it represents, rather than what it contains, can be a challenge, says homemaker Liew Yoke Puey, 37.
“When my kids were younger, their understanding of money is that the more one has, the better it is. So, whenever they received an angpow containing RM2, they would make a face and look unhappy. I had to keep reminding them that an angpow is a form of blessing from our loved ones and that the value is only a tiny part of the bigger picture.”
Liew’s children, aged nine and 12, have also been taught to keep from immediately opening their angpows – according to Chinese culture, it is rude for one to do so. “As long as you’re willing to take the time to explain things to your kids, they will listen,” she quips.
It is customary for Liew’s family to give out the red packets on the eve of Chinese New Year – these angpows are considered to be ya sui chien, or “money to keep one’s youth”. The recipients would sleep with the angpows placed beneath the pillows, an act meant to signify the continuity of good luck from year to year.
Liew reveals that in her family, the older siblings are encouraged to give angpows to the younger ones, regardless of their marital status.
“My older brother still gives me an angpow every year. As I am the second eldest, I will give angpows to my two younger sisters, who already have children of their own. This tradition signifies the responsibility of older siblings and how they should be looking after the younger ones. It’s something that was passed down from my parents’ time and I’d like it if my kids could continue with this tradition.”
Liew adds that Chinese New Year is in fact one of the family’s favourite times of the year. “We enjoy all the details that go into making the celebration what it is today. I stay very close to my parents and my siblings and I think that is why we’ve managed to keep certain traditions intact. The family may have grown bigger, but we’ve not grown apart. My parents have always been strong believers in upholding family values and traditions, and they let us know what they really expect from us. There’s a lot I can still learn from them.”
Enjoying the moment
On the first day of the Lunar New Year, Yeoh Jin Shan’s family strictly observes the ban on hair washing and doing laundry (so as not to wash the good luck away). The family also practises giving out ya sui chien, and is big on reunion dinners.
The kindergarten principal has taken to storytelling to give her firstborn a better idea of the traditions associated with the Spring Festival, another way of referring to the Chinese New Year.
“The story starts with Nian, a monster from ancient times. Nian would terrorise the towns every Spring Festival. As a solution, the villagers would put up a lot of red items and burn firecrackers just to scare the monster away. And the traditions have been passed on till today. I managed to find an animation of the story on YouTube to help put things in perspective for my daughter. She really loves the story,” says Yeoh, 34.
To get her eldest more involved in the festive preparations, Yeoh encourages the five-year-old to make Chinese New Year-themed crafts to decorate the home with.
“Now that she’s able to do some paper-cutting, I got her to cut some simple shapes out of red packets and had her paste them on the wall. When she’s older, I hope that she’ll pick up some baking skills from my mother-in-law and join the family in baking homemade festive snacks.
“What matters isn’t so much learning a new skill, but learning how to appreciate the time spent together with the family,” Yeoh adds.
While it is important that parents ensure that traditions live on through their children, Yeoh feels that families should not lose sight of one of the more important elements in life: enjoying the moment.
“Traditions are important, but it shouldn’t consume your life. We are but role models for our children. Save some space for fun and the rest will fall into place.”