Feb 14

Chinese Lantern Festival

Every year, on February 11th, the Chinese Lantern Festival marks the end of the New Year period with a beautiful celebration of lights. Symbolically, it is the first full moon of the Chinese calendar, which symbolizes two things: the reunion of family and the beginning of Spring.

This 2,000 year old tradition is a unifying force among those who participate, though traditions differ regionally. The most popular form of celebrating, however, is lighting and releasing lanterns with friends and family. It has become increasingly popular in the United States, which hosts Lantern festivals nationwide to celebrate.

[Photos © beijingholiday.com & historicphiladelphia.com]

How can I celebrate?

The Chinese Lantern Festival is a beautiful celebration of lights and more traditional elements, like flowers and dragons lining the streets with music and lion dances. But, aside from this, there are other fun activities that are constant in the festivals that you can do from home!

Guessing Lantern Riddles

In modern times people prepare the riddles and see if the children can solve it; if they know the answer the child writes the answer on the lantern. If you get the answer right, you win a prize! Also, children can write their own wish on a lantern and then release the lantern so it floats to the sky with their wish!

Here is a link for you to create your own paper lanterns, so try writing out riddles and seeing if your child can guess the answer!

Preparing Tangyuan

Lastly, preparing tangyuan is a classic element of the Chinese Lantern Festival. These are round, solid dumplings usually served in a sweet soup and are widely prepared throughout the festival. The round shape symbolizes unity and togetherness, both in family and in prosperity of the new year. To learn how to make your own tangyuan, see this recipe!

Releasing Lanterns

Of course, the most trademark tradition of the festival is releasing the lanterns into the sky in a show of optimism for the new year. No lantern is the same -- they come in shapes like dragons, or fish, or other animals, along with the traditional globes. Children often illuminate the streets and sidewalks with smaller, hand-held lanterns.

This year, there are large celebrations in New York, NY, Philadelphia, PA, Columbus, OH, and Fairfax, VA -- but even if you can’t make it, we highly recommend making your own paper lanterns and preparing tangyuan for your family.

Happy New Year!

Mar 05

A Gift: Chinese Zodiac Placemat!

Author: Bri Rodriguez-Cancio

The traditional Chinese attach zodiac characters to their yearly cycles, and 2015 is the Year of the Sheep. If you missed our blog series on Chinese New Year, please be sure to read it!

As a thank you for following along in our journey as we learned more about Chinese New Year, please download our Chinese Zodiac Signs placemats for your child. Be sure to get our Printable Spanish Alphabet Placemat too!

For Younger Kids

This one has baby animals and is more preschool-friendly for younger kids. Click the download button at the end of this post and print on legal-sized (8x14) paper for best results.

Printable Chinese Zodiac Placemat for Preschoolers

Please be sure to print on legal-sized (8x14) paper
for best results.

Download Printable Placemats


For Older Kids

This one is more traditionally-styled with red & paper cutout images, perfect for older students or even art lovers.

Printable Chinese Zodiac Placemat

Please be sure to print on legal-sized (8x14) paper
for best results.

Download Printable Placemats


Be sure to get our Mandarin Chinese Fruits & Veggies Placemat and our Spanish A-Z: Alphabet Placemat too!

Feb 19

Part IV: Chinese New Year Lantern Festival

Author: Bri Rodriguez-Cancio

This is Part IV of a 4-part series on Chinese New Year to share special family memories of a good friend, who is from Shanghai, China. Please be sure to read the Introduction, Part I: Chinese New Year's Eve, Part II: Chinese New Year & Family Time, and Part III: Chinese New Year & Kids.

On Day 15 of the Chinese New Year, the final day, there is a Lantern Festival [Yuan Xiao Jie]. In the West, this will fall on Thursday, March 5th this year. In Shanghai, there is a very famous site called City God Temple (Chenghuang Miao).

People love to stroll through the gardens and admire the plethora of lanterns. The city hangs lanterns of all shapes, sizes and colors... mostly red, but not exclusively. Enormous paper lanterns, shaped like the celebratory animal of the zodiac, are created and floated in nearby ponds. They look especially beautiful at night.

There are elements of fire, water and many lanterns have ribbons with riddles attached like a "tail." If you guess the riddle, you get a little prize. Of course, more culture, dance and music accompany the Lantern Festival with lively Dragon Dances. For many, Day 15 is the last day to celebrate the New Year with family and friends. Then, their gaze returns to the schedules of family, work and school. Life continues.

Conclusion

As the snow continues to fall in New Jersey, another excuse for a celebration is calling to me. Perhaps I can make some simple dumplings with ready-made wonton wrappers and some ground chicken & scallion filling. I promise to give my children a little red envelope today, even if it is made with red construction paper and "only" contains a small bill. Why not adopt a new tradition? Makes for a good story.

Xīn Nián Kuài Lè! or Happy New Year!


This post is Part IV of a 4-part series on Chinese New Year:

Chinese New Year Introduction »
Part I: Chinese New Year's Eve »
Part II: Chinese New Year & Family Time »
Part III: Chinese New Year & Kids »
Part IV: The Lantern Festival »

+ Plus Download our FREE gift:
A Printable Chinese Zodiac Placemat! »

Feb 18

Part III: Chinese New Year & Children

Author: Bri Rodriguez-Cancio

This is Part III of a 4-part series on Chinese New Year to share special family memories of a good friend, who is from Shanghai, China. Please be sure to read the Introduction, Part I: Chinese New Year's Eve, and Part II: Chinese New Year & Family Time.

New Clothes for Children

Children receive new clothes to wear on Day 1 of the 15-day Chinese New Year Celebration. I do not envy the shopping frenzy, if it is anything like that in the U.S.!

The Red Envelope!

As you may know, the color red is a harbinger of good luck. The "Hong Bao" or "Red Envelope" containing money is given to children during Chinese New Year.

Red Envelope

Who: Now, you may be thinking alongside me, "until what age do I have to subsidize my child/children's unchecked spending?" My source explained that there is no hard and fast rule. The upper limit for children to receive such presents can be high school, or depending on the family, until the child is married!

Variation: Companies in China, even American ones, quickly learn that Employers or Department heads are also expected to give "Hong Bao" to their employees.

Why: I also wondered why money was given, instead of gifts. I was told that money was traditionally viewed as a way for children to "get out of trouble" or "overcome difficulties" with their newly-received coins and bills.

How Much : this all depends on many factors, such as the family finances, the age of the child, the closeness between the relatives, and the occasion. Children can buy what they wish, or they may independently choose to save it to pay for a larger expense, such as school tuition.

Fireworks to Bring Wealth

On Day 5 of the 15-day Chinese New Year Celebration, people light firecrackers because they believe that the sound will bring the God of Wealth [Cai Shen] to their homes. He apparently looks like a very distinguished scholar-warrior with a long beard... not at all like "Rich Uncle Pennybags" from the U.S. Monopoly game or "Daddy Warbucks" from the "Annie" comic strip and movies.

Certain traditions have to evolve, and this explosive one has as well. In the last several years, authorities have been concerned about the possible spread of fire, not to mention bodily harm. Consequently, the firecrackers have been relegated to the outlying areas of the city, where there is more space for this mischief...er, fun. The same rule applies to fireworks. Luckily, the God of Wealth is apparently all--seeing, as he will find your home. So, some families will judiciously "divide" the fireworks display between Day 1 and Day 5 to "cover their bases" between beasts and budget, so to speak.


This post is Part III of a 4-part series on Chinese New Year:

Chinese New Year Introduction »
Part I: Chinese New Year's Eve »
Part II: Chinese New Year & Family Time »
Part III: Chinese New Year & Kids »
Part IV: The Lantern Festival »

+ Plus Download our FREE gift:
A Printable Chinese Zodiac Placemat! »

Feb 17

Part II: Chinese New Year & Family Time

Author: Bri Rodriguez-Cancio

This is Part II of a 4-part series on Chinese New Year to share special family memories of a good friend, who is from Shanghai, China. Please be sure to read the introduction and Part I: Chinese New Year's Eve.

Spending Time with Family

Remember that on New Year's Eve it is tradition that everyone must come home for dinner. This seems similar to Christmas Day in the U.S. or Christmas Day/Boxing Day in Great Britain and its former colonies... Or like a long Thanksgiving break!

As in any family, there are idiosyncrasies, family histories, hierarchies, allegiances and feelings to consider when scheduling family visits. These visits typically occur during Days 1-7 of the 15-day Chinese New Year Celebration. Naturally, one wants to be equitable and see all the necessary and important folks. Many decades ago, the government only allowed 3 days off. To harmonize with centuries of tradition, the more humble families would reunite for dinners only for the remaining days. Contrast with today, in which many Chinese families can squeeze in 7 days of eating, visiting and general festivities.

How does one accommodate 10, 16, or 20+ people in an apartment in a city like Shanghai where the population is 14+ million! (Contrast with approximately 8+ million in NYC.) You pick up the phone and call your most favorite restaurants, that's how! This modern convenience allows families to have more space, eat, and again, schedule visits, as the visit effectively takes place during the multi-course meal. If the host wishes, s/he can serve "light refreshments" at home and then everyone can head over to the restaurant.

Food & Drink

While regions such as Szechuan are known for their fiery, spicy cuisine, Shanghai dishes are known for their touch of sweetness.

For New Year's Day, one Shanghainese family always serves rice balls with sesame paste (a bit sweet) or meat (for those that love savory foods) in the morning [Tang Yuan or Yuan Xiao]. (If you are in Northern China, no rice balls will be served; instead, dumplings.)

Rice Balls

Another dish for certain Shanghai families is an egg dumpling soup [Dan Jiao].

Interesting side note: what happens when you marry someone from another part of China... or the world? How do you please, honor and commemorate each side's cultural/historical/culinary history? Sounds like a minefield to me. Or, what happens if you immigrate somewhere, to Lagos, to Alabama, to Sweden--how do you find the special ingredients for these special dishes? You improvise, no? Most certainly.

How about "Glutinous Sweet Dumplings in Sweet Wine" [Jiu Niang Yuan Zi]? Very traditional. The rice is fermented; there are small rice balls formed that go in the soup/broth (which becomes very glutinous). And, there are small red dried goji berries added for color and taste. These can be found at the health food sections of the market. I must taste some!

For drinks, the shortest toast to say is "Gan Bei!" This is the equivalent of "Cheers," but literally means "Dry Glass." Read more about the importance of an appropriate toast, with a lengthy list of popular examples.

How to Pass the Time

Nothing terribly "different" here--games, television, cards, board games. Starting on Chinese New Year's Eve, there is a marathon of a television special sponsored by the government that starts at 8:00 p.m. and goes to 1:00 a.m. (If you are on the Eastern Seaboard of the U.S., the show airs at 7:00 a.m. by CCTV.) The name translated into English is: Spring Festival Gala Evening. You can also wait a couple of hours or a day, and watch large excerpts on YouTube. It is a "smorgasbord" of the biggest dance stars, actors, talk show celebrities, magicians, etc. As I am writing just after Super Bowl Sunday in the U.S., I can see some similarities to the Half-Time "Event."

Fancy a game of Mahjong? This is a little bit like dominoes--ivory type chips, but with Chinese characters on them. Some families play for fun, but some will bring out the money and play for higher stakes.

Interesting fact: Did you know that many American Jewish women in the early 1900s took up Mahjong? I caught part of a PBS special on it recently and was fascinated while learning how and why it became so immensely popular for that population. For a slightly longer presentation, CBS Sunday Morning featured a segment on "Mahjong Madness" in 2014.

The younger generation is also taking up Mahjong. Interest is so piqued that there are even national conventions and boat cruises sponsored yearly. And this is not a past-time just for the ladies anymore... men are joining as well.

This post is Part II of a 4-part series on Chinese New Year:

Chinese New Year Introduction »
Part I: Chinese New Year's Eve »
Part II: Chinese New Year & Family Time »
Part III: Chinese New Year & Kids »
Part IV: The Lantern Festival »

+ Plus Download our FREE gift:
A Printable Chinese Zodiac Placemat! »

Feb 16

Part I: Chinese New Year's Eve

Author: Bri Rodriguez-Cancio

This is Part I of a 4-part series on Chinese New Year to share special family memories of a good friend, who is from Shanghai, China. If you missed the introduction, read it here.

C'mon Home for Dinner!

This is a tradition that is staunchly held in the countryside; it is the biggest moment of the year. City folk still follow these get-togethers, but it is a bit more flexible. No matter how rich or poor you are, you must come home for Chinese New Year's Eve dinner.

With the industrialization of China over several decades, younger family members go seek their fortune in the "big city" but they keenly remember their family obligation to return home by New Year's Eve. I remember seeing photographs of train stations filled to the brim with people, everyone jockeying to get on the right train to get home, no matter if the train ride was 10+ hours long.

Chinese New Year Lantern Festival

The Meal: Certain "Must Haves" on the Table

What are your "must have" dishes for major family/holiday events? Grandma's potato salad? "Abuelo's" or Grandpa's roast pig? For the Chinese, the central, essential dish is to have fish—a whole one—served up that night. It is called "Nian Nian You Yu." The word for fish [yú] has very, very similar pronunciation as the word for abundance [yú] in Chinese, so eating fish during the festival expresses the hope that there will be a general abundance in the coming year. There are so many cultural intricacies--I love it! Learn more here»

Post-Meal: TV, Games, etc. Stay up All Night!

After the multi-course family meal, there are many activities to engage in, to draw out the most important night of the year. Even little ones are encouraged to stay up as late as they want, to bring in the New Year. (I guess parents like me, with "sleep schedules" would be looked at like aliens...just as this happened to me during a New Year's visit to Venezuela many, many years ago.) Sounds like Dick Clark, the famous radio host, would fit right in with Chinese festivities, counting down the New Year...

The Stroke of Midnight, Xīn Nián Kuài Lè!!

Firecrackers & fireworks... ka-bam! Xīn Nián Kuài Lè or Happy New Year!

Traditionally, firecrackers were used to scare away Nian, a terrible beast that would come down from the mountains into the villages every year to eat people. However, in the modern world, people set off firecrackers to celebrate the New Year.


This post is Part I of a 4-part series on Chinese New Year:

Chinese New Year Introduction »
Part I: Chinese New Year's Eve »
Part II: Chinese New Year & Family Time »
Part III: Chinese New Year & Kids »
Part IV: The Lantern Festival »

+ Plus Download our FREE gift:
A Printable Chinese Zodiac Placemat! »

Feb 13

An Introduction to Chinese New Year

Author: Bri Rodriguez-Cancio

Celebrating a New Year... in February??? Yes, indeed!

The Gregorian (or "Western") calendar is not the only calendar used on the planet. The 1 billion+ people in China, among other countries, use the Lunar calendar and that New Year is coming up! Precisely on February 19th.

As the traditional Chinese attach zodiac characters to their yearly cycles, this year is the Year of the Sheep. Very simplified: All people born in a year share the same zodiac sign. (Here’s a link to read more if you are curious about the signs, the variations, etc)

I personally have the fine distinction to be classified as a Rat. I wish the term “mouse” was used instead (better connotations?) but rats are clever and sneaky… Sounds like any mom to me! Which one are you? Find out here. (This will give you a rough idea by year, although the "Lunar New Year" to be more correct does not start on January 1st, so you will need to type in your entire date of birth on other websites to be most accurate).

Chinese New Year: A Four-Part Series

Enough of the background information. Are you still with me? I am writing this entry as an introduction to a special 4-Part Series on the Chinese New Year to share special family memories of a good friend, who is from Shanghai, China. I have not yet had the good fortune to visit the "Middle Kingdom" or Zhongguo (中 国 ), however I want to present cultural traditions, including food, to show our differences and similarities.

As I step off my soap box, I will say that this is one illustration or intended consequence of learning another language: to make connections with others, find the similarities and perhaps, dare I say it, revel in some of the differences. Jump's! founder, Jackie Sanin, strongly believes that with language immersion, we learn that "we are more similar than different," and I must echo that sentiment. I have seen it in my travels. If you distill our wants as human beings, we seek: gainful employment, to provide for ourselves, and provide for our families. We worry about school, safety, and our children. This is the case if you are a sheep herder from the Atlas Mountains in Morocco, an electrician in Whippany, NJ, or a private equity trader in Manhattan, NY.

As we can all imagine, just as we cannot classify or distill certain traditions to the entire United States, one cannot use a broad brush stroke to simplify things across all of China. There are regional differences, to be sure, but also city vs. countryside differences. We will highlight some of those as we learn more about Chinese New Year over the next few days.

Please take this journey with me as we count down to celebrate Chinese New Year!


This post is the introduction to 4-part series on Chinese New Year:

Chinese New Year Introduction »
Part I: Chinese New Year's Eve »
Part II: Chinese New Year & Family Time »
Part III: Chinese New Year & Kids »
Part IV: The Lantern Festival »

+ Plus Download our FREE gift:
A Printable Chinese Zodiac Placemat! »

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