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A family-food affair

Chinese New Year a time of thanksgiving, reunion and renewal

Strong, reliable, stubborn are just a few traits of my Chinese astrological sign, and, I grudgingly agree, my own personality. I am an Ox. The Lunar Chinese New Year or Ying Li Shing Nian , the most popular of Chinese festivals, generally falls between the end of January and the beginning of February. There are 12 animal signs of the Chinese horoscope and because it follows a lunar cycle, the dates that animal signs encompass change annually.

This year, Jan. 22nd, marks the beginning of the Year of the Monkey and the 4702nd year of the Chinese calendar. People born under the sign of the Monkey are said to be active, intelligent and quick-tempered. New Year’s Eve and New Year’s day are a time of thanksgiving, reunion and renewal. It is celebrated as a family affair, traditionally honouring the gods of the household and family ancestors; it unites the living members of the family with those who have passed away.

Holiday preparations for the festival are begun far in advance of the new year as there is a lot of work to be done. New clothes are ordered and bought, the house must be swept meticulously and in such a fashion that no member of the family is swept away or that good luck is lost. On New Year’s Eve all brooms, dusters or other cleaning equipment is put away to prevent good fortune from being swept away. Most of the cooking preparations will have been completed in advance as well, not only so that everyone may relax during the holiday, but also to ensure that no knives, cleavers or other "unlucky" sharp objects need be used as these instruments may cut off or divide good luck.

The first morning of the Lunar New Year, the fizzle and pop of firecrackers chase away any lingering evil spirits. Greetings such as Gung Shi Fa Tsai, meaning "Congratulations! May you become rich;" or Do Eu Do Shou, meaning "May you be blessed with happiness and long life", are exchanged. Children are given spending money wrapped in red envelopes; the colour red symbolizes life and happiness.

Food is central to the New Year’s festivities and, following holiday superstitions, nearly every ingredient, the way that it is cooked and the way the final dish is served, is loaded with meaning and symbolism. Weilu, meaning "surrounding the stove", is the communal feast celebrated on New Year’s Eve that is shared with the ancestors and symbolizes family unity.

Often eight, 10 or 12 courses make up the feast as multiples of two represent double happiness and fortune. Although each family will have its own traditional dishes for the New Year, most will include a whole fish. Fish symbolizes togetherness and abundance. In addition, the sound of "yue", or fish, means "more than enough" when written as a character. It is very important that the family does not eat the whole fish; leaving a little bit behind means that the family will always have more than enough. It is imperative that the fish not be broken during or after cooking to ensure that the family receives good fortune.

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