Memories of a Lunar New Year Past

February 02, 2021 | Jan Stuart

an elaborate drawing of a bearded man with highly decorated clothing holding a staff
A pair of prints of guardian figures, or “door gods,” resembling these were pasted on the outer doors of the family home where I stayed to protect us from evil forces. These woodblock prints on paper date to the early 20th century. Freer Gallery of Art Study Collection, FSC-GR-627.

Decades ago in Taiwan, I had the unforgettable experience of staying with a friend’s family to celebrate Lunar New Year. I spent the holiday blanketed by family warmth and feeling giddy from constant sensory stimulation. The only quiet moments were those spent paying respect to the ancestors through activities such as burning incense in front of their photographs.

On New Year’s Eve, several generations gathered to sweep the floor, symbolically casting out lingering negativity. Then we exploded firecrackers to invite the ancestors to the evening’s family banquet, saving more for midnight, when, joining the neighborhood cacophony, we ignited our missiles to scare off evil forces. The house was ablaze with auspicious red and gold decorations, pictures of protective gods (including door gods), and images of chubby children emblematic of happiness.

Dinner was a parade of endless, richly aromatic delicacies, which carried as many good wishes as they did calories. A bowl of mandarin oranges symbolizing wealth decorated the table to which the family matriarch (and chef) brought heaping plates of steamed dumplings (jiaozi) shaped like silver ingots. Many of the dishes traditionally served during the feast have names that are puns alluding to wishes and good tidings. Jiaozi is a pun signifying that at the midnight exchange between the old and new year, prosperity arrives. We consumed a fish head to tail, indicating a favorable start and finish to the year. The Chinese word for fish is a homophone for a word meaning “surplus.” The name of a crab dish we were served sounds like the word for “harmony.” Dessert was a sweet glutinous rice cake called niangao, which plays on a pun meaning “a year of heights.” As we chewed, we whispered, “Step-by-step go higher” (bubu denggao), but we were too satiated to move.

a drawing of a red-faced, bearded man with highly decorated clothing holding a staff
One of a pair of “Door Guardian” prints. This one portraying Yuzhi Gong. Freer Gallery of Art Study Collection, FSC-GR-626.

Renewed the next day, we watched dragons and lions dance down local streets accompanied by crashing gongs and rhythmic drums. Chinese New Year’s riotous joy is indelible.