Each year our daughter comes home from school with colorful paper lanterns, hong bao (little red envelopes fulled with money to symbolize wealth and prosperity), and a Chinese greeting she's learned from her teachers. This year I vowed to go beyond what I've learned from preschool and Kai-Lan reruns and do a little research about the Chinese New Year celebration, local events, and ways we could learn about the traditions at home too. (But for the record, Nick Jr.'s Ni Hao, Kai-Lan website is a fine place to start: preschoolers will really enjoy the colorful printables, cooking projects, crafts, and games.)
What I learned is that Chinese New Year (a.k.a. the "Spring Festival") is the most important celebration in the Chinese calendar and has some inspiring traditions. The celebration starts on the first day of the lunar month (January 23 this year) and ends with the Lantern festival on the 15th day of the lunar month when the moon is the brightest (February 6 this year). During the celebration families and friends feast, celebrate and give each other gifts. Sounds good to me!
Give Yourself a Fresh Start
To prepare for the New Year it is customary for families to clear out any bad luck from the previous year and get ready to welcome good luck in the new year by embarking on a complete house cleaning. (Hmmm. I might need some help with that one.) Decorating the house with colorful decorations and flowers also helps to celebrate the coming of spring and a new beginning. (That I can definitely do.) For inspiration, The Daily Candy has some pretty ideas for setting the table and the Washington Post has a good article about staging your home with flowers and fruit for good luck.
But the really good news is that after all that hard work its traditional to buy new clothes or cut your hair! (Yes!) But don't wear black, which would be bad luck. Instead, scare away the bad spirits and celebrate with that new red dress you've been pining for. (Lucky for me!)
Find Your Inner Animal
The Chinese calendar follows a 12-year cycle with each year named after one of the animals that joined the Jade Emperor (or Buddha) at the new year celebration. According to chinesezodiac.com, I am a Dog, a sign which embodies admirable traits such as loyalty, kindness, and -- less attractively -- nosiness. Did you have a baby in 2011? Congratulations! He/she was born in the year of the Rabbit and is said to be kind, naturally lucky, and even-tempered. 2012 welcomes in the year of the Dragon and according to the Chinese zodiac, Dragon babies born this year will be smart, brave, and enthusiastic. (So Dragon Mamas, get out those baby gates!) For fun, you can show your children which animals and traits are associated with their birth year at Chinese Astrology Slides by Kaboose.
Kaboose also has some great craft ideas for kids, ideas for decorating the home, and colorful paper lanterns (pictured at top) that are easy to make. And although fortune cookies are really an American restaurant creation, I love the fortune cookie placecards and party ideas recently posted by Sandi on Oh Baby!
For older children who want to try their hand at Chinese writing, both the BBC and china-family-adventurewebsites have some good worksheets, guides and activities.
Of course, food is an important part of the celebration and its a great excuse to have a big family meal including dumplings, oranges, noodles, sticky rice, and sweets. I'm not a great cook, so luckily for us, there are plenty of fantastic Chinese restaurants in our area, many of which will deliver or provide carry-out. (How convenient is that??) Our kids particularly like the dumplings, anything on a stick, noodles and the spring rolls. They consider all of these items "finger food" but if you'd like tips on buying or making your own "training chopsticks" for children, visit lunchinabox.net.
Dance with the Dragon!
When I think of Chinese New Year, the first thing that I think of is the colorful parade with lion and dragon dancers. Although fireworks and fireworks are also traditional, for safety reasons they aren't usually a part of downtown celebrations. But you and your children will still get a big bang out of these lively local celebrations with music, crafts, demonstrations, food, and dancing.
Lunar New Year Celebration - Lakeforest Mall - January 23 - February 5
Chinese New Year Festival - Falls Church - January 28
Lunar New Year Celebration - Fair Oaks Mall - January 28 - 29
Chinese New Year Parade - Chinatown - January 29
Chinatown Lunar New Year Festival - Chinatown - January 29
Rockville Lunar New Year Celebration - Rockville High School - February 3
Now is also the time to get your tickets for the legendary Shen Yun Performing Arts World Tour, performing March 21- April 1 at the Kennedy Center. Tickets are pricey ($50-$250), but the performance is said to be phenomenal.
Art, Film, and Noodles at the Freer & Sackler Galleries
The Smithsonian's Freer & Sackler Galleries boast one of the finest museum collections of Chinese art outside of China, with over 10,000 objects dating from Neolithic times to the present. Current exhibitions include "Silk Road Luxuries from China" and "Power/Play: China's Empress Dowager". Highlights include a rich collection of jade objects, Buddist sculpture, fine porcelain and ceramic pieces, calligraphy, world-class paintings, and one of the world's best collections of ancient metalwork, including weaponry from the Shang and Zhou dynasties that is sure to impress your littlest warriors. Children can also participate in a free workshop,ImaginAsia: Freer's Peacock Room, January 28-29.
For a special treat, to celebrate Chinese Lunar New Year, the Freer is welcoming foodies and cinema lovers to savor a free screening on February 16 of Ang Lee's "Eat Drink Man Woman" and a beef noodle feast served up by one of Taiwan's top culinary artists, chef Hou Chung-sheng. (Free noodles and a film...awesome!)
To get a better look at the moon itself, consider Stargazing at the Public Observatory (January 28, February 11 & 25, all ages) or a Full Moon Hike at the National Arboretum (February 6-8, ages 16 and up).
Curl up with a Good Book
Finally, since paper was invented in China, what better way to end the day than to curl up with your little ones for storytime? Although last year all the talk was about Amy Chua's "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother," your children will thank you a thousand times if instead you reach for some kinder, gentler picture books celebrating the Chinese New Year. For some great children's book options check out your local library or the reading list put together by InCultureParent.
Want to learn more? The Chinatown Community Cultural Center has a 3,000 square foot gallery celebrating Chinese art and culture, offers walking tours of Chinatown, and gives classes (some of them for free) in Tai Chi and Kung Fu, Chinese Caligraphy, Chinese Language, Ping Pong, and Chinese Brush Painting. For more local groups offering language classes, cooking classes, and martial arts classes see DC Metro Mom's Guide. Happy New Year!
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