How to Throw a Small-Scale Chinese New Year Party
The Chinese New Year is one of China's most important holidays, and it's also a super fun excuse to celebrate with traditional colors, symbols and, of course, food.
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Chinese New Year 101
Chinese New Year 2021 falls on Friday, February 12, and this year is the year of the ox. The ox is known to be hardworking and honest—attributes to celebrate and replicate throughout the year.
Chinese New Year began as a way of bringing the family together to honor household deities. Chinese New Year (or Spring Festival, as it has come to be called) remains one of China’s most important holidays. Its focus has shifted beyond the household and into the community, and is a time for luck, food and family. Sounds like a good excuse to celebrate, on a small scale (save the crowded celebrations for a safer time).
To make sure we start the party off right, we asked Justin Young, our head of affiliate e-commerce, how his Chinese American family celebrates the new year. He advises, “Take everything in! Chinese New Year is more than just a night, it actually lasts 15 days and there are so many different things to do, traditions to follow and foods to eat.” Here’s how to celebrate the Chinese New Year.
(Learn more about the lucky Chinese New Year foods!)
Sweep away the bad luck
First things first. If you’re having a friend over, you’re likely going to tidy up first. But cleaning on Chinese New Year is about more than good hosting. It’s traditionally done to sweep away bad luck from the current year (we’re looking at you, 2020). Then, when guests arrive, have them remove their shoes at the door to encourage a clean and smooth transition into the new year.
Young tells us, “In my family, we all took part in getting the house cleaned and ready for the new year. However, I bet my mom would say she did most of the sweeping.”
Not a bad way to get started on your spring cleaning checklist, eh?
Decorate with the color red
A good party needs lively decorations. One Chinese New Year custom is to hang red paper decorations in windows, doors and around the house. It’s believed that this tradition derives from an ancient legend involving a beast called Nian (the name is a Chinese word for “year”), who was known to be terrified of the color red.
Red also symbolizes power, happiness and vitality, so you’ll want to use red wherever you can in your decor. For example, string up red paper lanterns, or place red flowers in vases all around the room. Red velvet cake, anyone? You can also set the mood with red signature cocktails, such as Pomegranate Cosmos, and mocktails such as a Raspberry Refresher.
Be sure to add gold highlights
Although traditional Chinese New Year decor is red, it should be accented with gold. Gold represents wealth, good fortune and prosperity—all important themes for the new year. And who couldn’t use a little good fortune in 2021?
It’s also a Chinese New Year tradition to write messages wishing good luck, good fortune, wealth, prosperity and longevity to loved ones. Place those messages where people will find them. For an added lucky touch, write the messages in gold ink on red paper. When it’s safe to invite a crowd, you can even make your invitations red with gold writing (or at least send an email in red font.)
Listen to the Chinese zodiac
Chinese tradition holds that every new year is imbued with the characteristics of one of the 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and pig. It’s also a tradition to decorate the home with images of the incoming zodiac animal.
2021 is the year of the ox, so your party decor should include at least a few ox figurines and photos. We like this ox tea towel, and Chinese New Year ox cards (made by a Chinese American artist). Another way to honor the ox is by replicating its attributes, which are honesty, practicality, diligence, responsibility and kindness. We could all use more kindness in 2021!
Include dragons and lions
The dragon is a beloved symbol for Chinese New Year—showcasing strength, goodness and good luck as well as supernatural forces—so you’ll want to include dragons in the party decorations. For example, you can stretch a long red dragon garland along the ceiling or a wall.
As for lions, they celebrate strength, stability and superiority for the Chinese New Year. Young tells us, “My favorite memories of Chinese New Year are when I used to participate in lion dance performances throughout my New York Chinatown community. I was part of an organization called the Wan Chi Ming Hung Gar Institute and we would parade around Chinatown to give the community and businesses good luck for the new year.”
Exchange red envelopes for good fortune
Another Chinese New Year tradition is the exchanging of gifts in a very specific way: small red envelopes (these incorporate 2021’s ox for added luck) filled with “lucky money.” The envelopes symbolize the giving of good fortune.
You could provide envelopes for guests to give to one another, or you can give them out yourself. If you want to switch up the idea of lucky money envelopes, give out little red goody bags and fill them with homemade candy for a sweet year!
Serve traditional Chinese foods
Young says, “It’s not a Chinese New Year party without food. Food is such a big part of the celebration!” Historically, the Chinese New Year celebration would last for 15 days, and certain foods would be eaten at certain days and times. For example, in the first five days of the new year, people ate long noodles (symbolizing long life). On the 15th day, people ate dumplings shaped like the full moon, symbolizing family and perfection. Invoke these traditions at your own party by serving Chicken Stir-Fry with Noodles and Asian Chicken Dumplings.
“My favorite custom is getting together with family around a big banquet dinner. The food is endless and there are so many yummy things to eat,” Young says. His parents would make or buy little cakes called fat goh, or wealth cakes. “My parents would steam them in the morning of Chinese New Year,” he says, “so my first meal would be good luck and blessed.”
Check out these Chinese takeout fake-out recipes.
Don’t forget dessert
For dessert, be sure to incorporate oranges and tangerines, which represent wealth, luck and happiness. (Here’s how to pick ripe oranges every time.) And don’t forget the fortune cookies! Make them yourself, or order a set with custom fortunes to surprise family and friends.
It’s been said that no Chinese New Year celebration is truly complete without fireworks, because the terrifying beast Nian is terrified of the light and noise. Also, the noise wakes up a magical dragon who will fly across the sky to bring spring rain for abundant crops. If you do decide to go with the fireworks tradition, please be sure to hire a trained professional to get it off the ground, so to speak, safely. Happy Chinese New Year!