I have many memories of Lunar New Year celebrations as the Lunar New Year was a huge event in my former home of Markham Ontario. Tomorrow, February 11, marks the 2021 Lunar New Year (also known as Chinese New Year).
Based on the cycle of the moon, Lunar New Year falls on different dates each year, usually on a wintry day. Ironically, the Lunar New Year is also considered the spring festival as it is believed to mark the end of the coldest days of winter.
I write about the Lunar New Year purely as an interested observer. Please don’t interpret my post as cultural appropriation. It is not my intention to usurp any aspects of the customs, practises or ideas of the many people of Asian descent who own this important occasion and all the traditions associated with it.
My Introduction to Lunar New Year
My introduction to lunar new year celebrations happened during 25 years of living in Markham. Markham is a city of about 350 thousand people. Its border is on Steeles Avenue, a street where the North side is in the York Region and the South side of Steeles is in Toronto. Markham is Canada’s most ethnically diverse community.
Most of my neighbours in Markham were of Asian descent. It was from my neighbours and from the action in the neighbourhood that I learned to appreciate the significance of the Lunar New Year.
Our house was within walking distance of the Pacific Mall, which is the largest indoor Asian shopping mall in North America. The Pacific Mall has 450 retail shops, most selling goods from China or Hong Kong. During the Lunar New Year celebrations, shops and restaurants were adorned with red and gold decorations.
Our bank was located in the Pacific Mall. Because so many clients were of Asian descent, each year the bank gave red envelopes to customers containing a quarter (25 cent piece) along with a hard candy wrapped in red and gold. Clients received these envelopes through the duration of the 15 day Lunar New Year celebrations.
Beginning a few weeks before the Lunar New Year, activities in this busy mall increased as people arrived to buy products associated with the celebrations– gifts, food, home decorations, and new clothes. Most families shopped together in intergenerational groups of 8 to 10 people. Parking was impossible!
All types of decorations were popular sale items. Beautiful red lanterns, fans, door couplets and paper cutouts created a festive mood in shops and restaurants. Household cleaning products were popular as it is customary that houses have a thorough cleaning for a fresh start on the New Year. People also shopped for clothes as all family members wear new clothes on the first day of the New Year to symbolize a re-start.
Traditions I Learned About
I loved to visit the Pacific Mall during the Lunar New Year festivities. That’s where, at the urging of one of my neighbours, I first attended a dragon dance parade, watched a lion dance, and also where the lantern parade that ends this celebration happened.
Food traditions tantalized. Restaurants in the mall featured special menus with several courses. For casual lunches, vendors in the food courts served hot dumplings with wonderfully flavoured sauces. I learned about various dishes considered to bring luck, abundance and good fortune. My taste buds water as I remember the varieties of fish, savoury dumplings, rice cakes, crisp spring rolls and noodle dishes.
The big event happens on New Year’s Eve with a family reunion dinner which is the most important tradition of the celebrations. Families often travel great distances to be together for this dinner. Elaborate dishes are served. Each course has its symbolism for luck, health and prosperity.
After dinner, red envelopes containing money are given to parents, grandparents, and children. The red envelopes signify a wish for another peaceful and prosperous new year. It’s a tradition that the money inside is in the form of crisp new bills rather than ‘used’ bills.
At midnight fireworks and firecrackers are set off to hail the new year. It is said that billions of fireworks go off at midnight on New Year’s eve in China. Traditionally, firecrackers were used to ward off evil spirits. In our time, firecrackers and fireworks are expressions of happiness and a means to enhance the festivities.
2021 Lunar New Year Celebrations
In 2021, people of Chinese, Vietnamese, Indonesian, and Korean descent who live in Ontario face pandemic lockdown and stay-at-home restrictions. Except for food stores and restaurant takeouts, non-essential businesses in the Pacific Mall and other shopping malls in Markham are closed.
This year families will gather virtually. Stay-at-home meals from specialty restaurants are available for pick-up and delivery.
To mark the Lunar New Year, and to bring some variety to the pandemic menu at our home, I’ll serve a dinner of dumplings with a hot sauce, a sweet and sour chicken dish, and green tea ice cream for dessert. We will savour memories of wonderful dinners in first-class Chinese restaurants in Markham as we toast the beginning of the Lunar New Year.
Thanks for reading this post. I wish all readers of Asian descent a happy and prosperous New Year. It’s the Year of the Ox in the Chinese Zodiac! The Ox represents strength which all of us need during this pandemic!