Noodles, Red Envelopes and Tradition: Reflections on Chinese New Year

Noodles, Red Envelopes and Tradition: Reflections on Chinese New Year


Noodles, Red Envelopes and Tradition: Reflections on Chinese New Year 

As a third-generation Chinese-American, I didn’t grow up with much of an emphasis on my cultural heritage, except when Chinese New Year rolled around. 

For the New Year, we attended huge banquets, loaded down with fish, dumplings, spring rolls, rice cakes, fruit and sweet rice balls. Our favorites, though, were the longevity noodles, so named because they’re really, really long and, thus, symbolize a long life.

Chinese New Year is rich with symbolism, with many foods (like the longevity noodles) holding a special meaning for the new year. The one that caused the most excitement for the kids were the red envelopes, which we would all receive from our family members and that contained a little bit of cash.

Red envelopes play a fairly prominent role in Chinese culture, and they are presented at big family gatherings and other celebrations. To this day, I often give special gifts in or accompanied by a red envelope, particularly to family members. Red is a lucky color and it’s believed to ward off evil spirits. 

Of course, most Chinese people don’t literally believe giving a red envelope wards off evil spirits or eating long noodles lengthens your life any more than families who hang their stockings by the fireplace really believe an elf will fill them with presents on Christmas morning. 

But these traditions root us, to our families, to our past, to our culture. They give us a connection to the ancestors who worked the soil for generations, who ventured to a foreign country, who toiled in sweatshops – all for the promise of a better future for their descendants. A similar story can probably be told by most Americans (with obvious modifications for those whose ancestors were brought here in chains).

Chinese New Year – which begins today – connects me to a tradition that I may not have always appreciated but that I have grown to cherish with each passing year. It’s a celebration of new beginnings and long histories, endless noodles and red envelopes, and the promise of a brighter tomorrow.

Happy New Year!